An interview with… ROBERT FORD

Robert Ford has written the novels The Compound, and No Lipstick in Avalon, the novellas Ring of Fire, The Last Firefly of Summer, Samson and Denial, and Bordertown, as well as the short story collection The God Beneath my Garden. He has co-authored Rattlesnake Kisses and Cattywampus with John Boden, and A Penny For Your Thoughts and Lady Luck with Matt Hayward. You can find out more about what he’s up to by visiting robertfordauthor.com

What was your first published book and what is the last (so far)?

I’d had short stories published in various venues, but my first published book was the novella Samson and Denial, in 2011, by Thunderstorm Books. Most recent is Cattywampus, cowritten with John Boden.

Did you start by writing short stories and then “graduated” to writing novels, or did you start as a novelist?

I started a novel during my senior year of high school—some chaotic storyline involving a demonic werewolf or something. I wrote about 50k words and then I graduated school, life got a little crazy with work and going to college, and I set that novel aside. Probably a good thing, but it proved to me I was capable of actually writing something novel length. I didn’t realize at the time how important a lesson it was for me to learn. When online resources became available, I sought out magazines and other publishers seeking short stories and began focusing on those as well.

You co-authored Rattlesnake Kisses and Cattywampus with John Boden, and A Penny for Your Thoughts and Lady Luck with Matt Hayward. How much easier or hard it is to write something with someone else and how do you share the work? Can you give us an idea of how it is?

When you’re writing with someone, I think the most important thing is to trust the other author. You’re signing up to share your raw draft work, so you have to be able to let yourself do that without fear of judgement. The process for me at least, has been to scratch out the loose concept and let go of control. It’s never felt constricting or as if I should hold back anything when I’m co-writing—in fact, it’s sort of freeing in a way. I usually write a chapter (sometimes two) and then hand it off and wait until I get the next one or two chapters in return. Sometimes, but not often, I’ll stop and discuss a new plot twist to see what the other writer had in mind. It’s truly been a great time seeing what surprises the other author comes up with and I’ve always felt that if I’m getting excited when I go through the work, it’s a good sign the readers will as well.

How important is the setting in your stories?

It’s very important, and I tend to include a lot of sensory details to really paint the picture for the reader. If it’s a city environment, I’ll include details about what the character sees and hears, what they smell and touch. 

Same with a country setting—I’ll run through those things as well, but it creates a very different picture than the city environment. 

Setting itself can be a character if it’s handled properly and I think ignoring the importance of setting in fiction only makes that world less real for the reader.

What’s your opinion of supernatural fiction?

I have a tough time with it because I don’t scare easily at all from books or movies. It actually bums me out quite a bit because as a kid, I loved that feeling. Those jump-scares that made chills race up my spine and almost made me laugh out loud.

When it comes to supernatural fiction, there needs to be something really unnerving and unsettling about it to get me. There are definitely some writers who handle it very well. I’ve just become jaded and I loathe myself a little for that.

Many horror creatures are tied to religion (at least in their classic versions); do you find this to be a limit to creativity?

I think a lot of them are tied to religion because there’s already a set of rules a lot of readers are already familiar with to play off of. I have used known rules or stereotypes of Christianity in my fiction because I know that already holds a resonance and familiarity. 

But I’ve also created monsters or antagonists who are tied to religions, but ones I created. Now that’s a lot of fun because you’re building this entire mythos, some of which may never end up in the novel or short story anyway, but you’re creating it because you need to know the confines of how the monster can operate.

I think limits on creativity are only set by the creators themselves. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a perfect example. He took the rules and tossed them.

Do you come from a literary background?

Not at all. I grew up an only child on a farm and my parents always pushed books on me when I was young. I always had a novel in my hands and was probably reading books I had no business reading at such a young age. I read Stephen King’s Carrie when I was eight or nine, I think. I didn’t truly understand some of the scenes and references, but I got the context. That book blew me out of the water and was a true turning point in how I thought about writing and being a writer.
I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books and any horror novels I could get hold of. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, any King I could grab. I read voraciously, but I also grew up around some natural storytellers. At family gatherings, I was the kid who sat quietly and listened to stories the older people would tell. I guess it all stuck.

What is your next project? What’s next for you?

Currently, I’m doing the final edits on a novel called Burner. I wrote the entire first draft in June 2019, which is highly unusual for me. I’d had the idea kicking around in my head for quite a while, but when I finally sat down to write, it felt much more like I was frantically trying to take dictation and get the words down, than actually writing. I had to do some pretty extensive research on this novel and this, more than any, ended up being one of those times a writer learns a lot of things they’d rather not know. 

I have gone back and forth on the content of the novel, because as I mentioned, it’s absolutely brutal and unforgiving. I know trigger warnings are a huge thing but I’m not sure I agree with them. Of course, the last thing I want to do is to cause any reader emotional pain or bring up any trauma from their past, but the thing is, real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. We can’t just turn our heads and bury them in the sand and pretend certain things don’t exist in the world. There are real monsters out there in the world and we read about them every day in the news.

I’m also about a third of the way through another novel titled Dead Pennies and it’s my first venture into supernatural fiction. As I mentioned, it takes quite a lot to unnerve me with fiction, and I’m really taking my time to make sure I’m handling things the proper way. I’ve already creeped myself out with certain scenes and that never happens, so I’m taking it as a pretty good sign I’m on the right track.

Do you have a writing process and do you have a writing place?

I take copious amounts of notes before I start putting sentences together on a project. Often, I’ll get a title in my head first, even though I may not have any idea what concept the title is tied to. So that’ll jostle around for a while until things start forming. I’ve written enough now that I get a feeling for whether the idea is a novel or novella or short story. I try to avoid actually writing prose until I can hear the character’s voice and get a strong sense of their character, but I’ll write down snips of dialogue and scene ideas and things like that. 

As far as a writing place, absolutely. I have a home office I work in, but occasionally I find it’s great to shake things up a bit. I’ve written in pubs with headphones on, and writer retreats. It does something good to your mind, I think, to change the environment once in a while.

Can you tell us something about your beginning in the indie world?

After the limited edition hardback and paperbacks of Samson and Denial were sold out in a couple weeks, the rights reverted back to me. I spent years in graphic design, so I handled the layout and cover design and released it myself on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. The process was fairly smooth, and I’ve done that with other titles of mine as well. The curse of it all is that it IS so easy to publish something on Amazon, the marketplace is flooded with great, terrible, and okay work. The challenge is to somehow slice through all of that and get your work in front of the right people. Word of mouth has been the absolute best advertising for me.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

I think the number one is getting caught up in making that first draft perfect during the process of the first draft. Often, inexperienced writers get so anxious about that, they never finish the draft at all. GET THE FIRST DRAFT DONE! You can polish it up and make it beautiful later, but until you have that first big lump of clay to work with, nothing else matters.

Number two is impatience. Take the time to make the manuscript as polished as you can. That means getting the draft done, stepping away for a week or two so you can come back and edit with fresh eyes. Get a few trusted people to give a read through to edit and give feedback, and then address those things. Don’t rush it because I guarantee you’ll regret it later. Respect the process.

Does writing energise or exhaust you?

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this question before! If I’m doing it correctly and I’ve lost myself in the zone, I’d say it probably takes a lot out of me. I’m giving all I can to breathing life into the world and the characters I’m creating, so yeah, I’d say it exhausts me more than energizes me. When I completed the first draft of Burner, I felt like I’d run a marathon. I took a full two weeks off after that because I was absolutely drained and I’ll probably try to avoid that experience in the future. But there are few feelings better than writing a few chapters and knowing, in your heart of hearts, you nailed them perfectly. Writing THE END on the first draft never ever gets old.

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

I have a degree in Visual Communications, but I think there is some validity to getting a degree in creative writing if you’re able. I also don’t think it’s necessary though. My own personal feelings are when it comes to creative ventures, you have the passion and the drive to become better at it, or you don’t. Of course, they help—getting exposed to technique and learning is always a great thing—but I don’t think they’re a requirement. We’ve all met people with Masters Degrees who aren’t exactly a master at their craft. I’ve definitely met more than a few masters who have never set foot on a college campus.

What was a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up?

Horror, absolutely, but also some sword and sorcery fantasy. A few hand-me-down westerns and romances from my mother, but mostly horror.

Did you write as a child?

The first short story I ever wrote was when I was in first grade. It was this illustrated, strange story about a race of tiny people who carved out homes in apples or something, and got attacked by a giant. As I continued through school, I’d go the extra mile every time I’d get an assignment to write fiction. Wrote a ton of poetry for a while, and then turned my attention to long and short fiction.

What is an indie movement cliché that you’d like to erase?

That if you write the book, people will buy it. That’s simply not true. Proper editing, cover design, layout, promotion, marketing… that all adds up to a book’s success. Completing the book and self-publishing it is only the start. It’s too easy to get lost in the forest, but lots of people still hang onto that hope. It takes a tremendous amount of work to spread the word.

Is there anything you find bad about the horror movement?

Tropes.

It’s a huge challenge to come up with a different angle for the common tropes of horror, and often—much more so in movies than in fiction—the same set ups are repeated. Group of college kids on a break all go to a cabin and things go wrong. A family moves to a house for a new beginning, and scary things happen. It’s tough enough to set your work apart from what’s already out there without starting from the get-go with a set-up that’s been done a million times.

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

At this point, I don’t think so. I look at people like William S. Burroughs and Hunter Thompson and their bravery at writing about what they wanted, and I greatly admire that. I’ve been watching society and how certain things are starting to be considered taboo to write about. Why? These things exist and sweeping them under the rug doesn’t make them not exist. I’m afraid if we continue down this path, fiction will start to become diluted and there won’t be anything thought-provoking. Isn’t that what writers are supposed to do? Entertain, yes, of course, but provoke thought in the reader? 

If an idea came to me that I really believed in, and I thought it would make a great story, then yes, I’d pursue it with as much passion as anything else. I write for myself and not the market.

As an indie writer, you will have noticed that Amazon has basically the monopoly of self-publication. How bad do you think that is and do you think there is anything that “normal” people can do to create an indie market that’s more free?

To say it’s a challenge is an understatement. Amazon can be incredibly frustrating at times. I know writers who have had books self-published there for several years, and then, after only altering the cover design, their book has been flagged for content and banned without any real discernible reason. 

And Good Reads… don’t get me started. There’s certainly a sense of community there, and I’m thankful and appreciative of any reviews I receive, but since Amazon owns Good Reads, you would think there would be a crossover of reviews to a book’s listing on Amazon itself, but no.

Good Reads is great for word of mouth, but reviews on a book’s listing on Amazon are what truly has an impact on sales because of how their algorithms work.

In all sincerity, I’m not sure what can be done about the monopoly Amazon has. Maybe some enterprising young entrepreneur will create a books only platform for sales and truly be author-friendly. We can all hope, right?

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

Step away from social media and electronics and get outside. I’m lucky enough to have lots of woods surrounding where I live, and it grounds me (no pun intended) to get out and walk around with nature. The time to settle thoughts without interruption of online drama or politics or news of COVID is a much-needed thing.  

It has been an incredibly busy two years for me, and looking back, I think I’ve only read two or three books that weren’t because I was editing or pre-reading for another writer. But I’ve been so focused because I feel a momentum building and don’t want to miss that window of opportunity.

How do you manage to fit your writing with the other demands of life? Are you good at managing your time?

For years, I ran my own advertising agency, and the demands of that field and trying to write were definitely incompatible. I spent many 80 and 90 hour weeks doing ad work and not writing. It was frustrating and made me bitter, but I used that as fuel. I wrote my first screenplay for HBO’s Project Greenlight, and beat out over 3,500 other scripts to place in the top 500. 

Life eventually settled down and for the longest time, I used to write late at night when the household went quiet. I’ve been writing full-time now for over a year and go through a morning routine of coffee and checking emails and then read through what I wrote the previous day, tweaking as I go, and then dig back in to a new chapter. I don’t have any set word count I try to hit, but I keep pushing ahead until it feels right. Generally, I end up with one to two thousand words a day, sometimes more, but not often less.

Writing, editing, proofreading, marketing, cover design… do you wear all these hats yourself or do you have someone you can trust to help you with those?

I’ve handled cover design, layout and marketing myself in the past because of my background, but editing and proofreading is a must to outsource. I have trusted talents to point out where I screwed up and where I’ve done well, and I adhere to their advice about 98% of the time.

How important is a book’s cover?

Very. People DO judge a book by its cover, and now, on Amazon, viewing thumbnail images, a cover is more important than ever. Typography and design are so crucial. The title has to be legible at that thumbnail size. I think looking at the top 100 cover designs on the New York Times bestseller list should be a requirement before anyone designs a cover on their own. And like anything else, design trends come and go, but the core rules—legibility, font choice, etc.—always remain.

With the advent of social media, is it still important to have a personal website for an indie author?

I think so, yes. It gives readers a focal point to find out information and news on an author they like. Publishers will definitely look for it to see how an author is handling themselves and if they’re making an effort to market their work. It’s a lot of work dealing with social media and a site, but yes, I think it’s still very important. I post video readings of my work on my YouTube Channel as well.

Do indie writers perpetuate their own ghettoization?

Major points for using the word “ghettoization”, and it’s a very valid question. So many creatives have always felt they were an outcast, so I think to a degree, yes, they do a self-fulfilling sort of thing to continue that. At the same time, I look back at Burroughs, Kerouac, and Thompson and though culture grouped them at times with the Beatnik or punk rock crowd, I’m not sure that fits. People love to categorize things and I think society is doing most of it with indie writers. Though I’m sure, those same writers, at a convention with other kindred spirits, would love to sit down and talk shop and discuss the pros and cons of things and relax a bit. We’re all outcasts until we sit down with like-minded people and realize we’re not alone.

Do you plan the story in advance, or do you start with a premise and see where it goes from there?

I almost never create an extensive outline anymore. I did early on, even with short stories, but as I’ve grown as a writer, I stopped. I never want to feel constrained or beholden to some outline I’ve created. I like my characters to surprise me, and hopefully they’ll surprise readers as well. 

I have journals and notepads of ideas—much like any other writer—and some of those will germinate to something bigger. Others may never see the light of day, and they probably shouldn’t. I had the title of my short story Free Ride Angie in my head for a few years before I was alone on a long drive and it hit me like a sledgehammer what the title meant. I wrote the story a week or so after that.

With novels, particularly right now, Dead Pennies, I want to make sure I handle things with a delicate hand so I don’t screw up the scenes I want to be frightening. I didn’t create an outline, but after I finish a chapter, I’ll write notes for the next two chapters and that’s about as far as I go.

How important are the names of your characters?

Names can be very important at times, especially in an understated way. I chose my character Samson Gallows’ name because it communicates an underlying death-related meaning. Other times, I’ll use first names of friends or fans to give them a smile, which is always fun.

Do you want to give us some of your contacts?

Sure! 

Twitter: @bobford

Instagram: @bobford

Site: robertfordauthor.com

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