Today, as part of Supernatural Fridays, we’re talking to Joe Schreiber, author of recent Supernatural tie-in novel, The Unholy Cause (which we reviewed a few months back). Joe was kind enough to answer our questions about his career and give us some more insight into what’s turned out to be quite a popular entry in the show’s tie-in series:
IFP: How did you start out as a writer?
JS: I’ve been writing seriously since I was thirteen years old. That’s the summer that I discovered Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Harlan Ellison, the four writers who most influenced my idea of what a story should and could be. I was reading a lot of EC Comic reprints at the time too – and a lot of other comics, besides – and watching Twilight Zone reruns on TV. I decided that I would try to write a short story every day, and although I didn’t quite hold to that regimen, it foreshadowed my methods for the next 27 years.
IFP: Can you tell us about how you got into writing tie-in novels? How did you become involved in writing Supernatural fiction?
JS: The tie-in thing just happened. I never thought of myself as a tie-in writer. But my philosophy has always been that, if I’m offered something I’ve never done before, say “yes” first, then think about it later. As far as Supernatural goes, I never really watched the show – I think I saw part of the pilot episode online – and when Chris Cerasi at DC Comics offered me the gig, I sort of bullshitted him into thinking I knew what I was doing. It helped that he was desperate and up against a deadline, and I’d pitched him an idea for a Batman crime novel that they’d ultimately passed on, but he thought I might be right for this. After I signed the contracts, I started reading every script and watching every episode I could get my hands on, along with all the season guides and demon handbooks. It was total immersion, in a hurry.
IFP: What was the inspiration for your Supernatural novel, The Unholy Cause?
JS: I came up with a list of story ideas and sent them off to Chris and Cath Trechman at Titan Books, and Eric Kripke and those guys in LA, and I had some favorites and stuck the Civil War one on the end, basically, just to flesh out the list. I wasn’t a big Civil War fan and didn’t know anything about…and of course, that was the idea they all flipped for. So, along with learning everything about the way the show and characters worked, I was taking research trips to Gettysburg, talking to historical re-enactors, and reading up on Civil War battles and history. All in a course of about six weeks. So, I guess, to answer your question, my main inspiration is what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as “rat bastard panic”.
IFP: One of the most terrifying creatures in The Unholy Cause is the “moa’ah”. Where did you get the idea for this? Is it a real bit of Civil War folklore?
JS: I made that up out of whole cloth. I’m glad it worked for you. Basically, I needed something creepy with a lot of potential for mayhem. They’ve covered so much over the various seasons of the show that I found myself really stretching to come up with something a little different.
IFP: What did you think of the Apocalypse storyline for seasons four and five of Supernatural?
JS: I dug it. It was a funny, crazy time to familiarize yourself with the show’s universe, and especially to be jumping into cold as a writer. When I was writing the book, nobody but the showrunners and writers knew what exactly was gonna happen with Sam and Dean’s relationship and I was getting these new, top secret, unproduced scripts every week with little clues…okay, we think they’re going to be okay, just press on and hope that this break between them isn’t too permanent. It was like being a child of divorced parents, sitting at home, praying it’ll work out. And it did, of course.
IFP: Do you have any future Supernatural projects in the works?
JS: Nope, not right now.
IFP: How do you put a fresh spin on someone else’s characters/universe?
JS: I think it’s a mistake to try. There’s already so much charm between the Winchester brothers and their peripheral characters in the show, if you can tap into that, why re-invent the wheel? It’s Jared and Jensen and you can hear their voices, along with Castiel’s and Bobby and all those guys, as you sit down to write, and that’s a huge booster rocket as far as the process is concerned. Once you get those voices rolling, you almost go into dictation mode. It’s the same kind of thing writing dialogue for Han Solo. You know that voice, he’s like an old friend. You plug in your monster of the week, drop them into the middle of a Civil War re-enactment, put on some Molly Hatchet, whatever, and just let them react.
IFP: Can you tell us about the prequel for Death Troopers coming out this year?
JS: It’s set back in the Old Republic, and it deals with the origin of the Blackwing virus…who started it, and why. It’s pretty gooey.
IFP: How did you become involved with the Star Wars franchise?
JS: In a situation eerily similar to the Supernatural scenario, the opportunity just sort of dropped on my lap. One day, my agent called and said, Del Rey wants to know if you want to do a Star Wars zombie novel. It had never occurred to me. The guy who edited my original horror novels was involved in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and like many great ideas, this one apparently had its origins at a bar at some convention. “We should do a Star Wars horror novel!” “Yeah!” That kind of thing. They offered; I jumped. Fortunes have been gained and lost for far less.
IFP: Please tell us about some of your original work, such as Eat the Dark and No Doors, No Windows.
JS: Eat the Dark is about a hospital that’s being closed down, and on the last night of its operation, a serial killer gets brought in for a brain MRI. He locks himself in with the skeleton crew of employees, kills the lights and indulges his darkest impulses. It’s based on my own experiences working midnight shift in the radiology department of the level one trauma center that employs me now, plus some creepy stuff that I made up out of my own diseased imagination. The ending is actually the most Lovecraftian thing I’ve ever done. I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, but it was a lot of fun. No Doors is my everything-must-go haunted house story…it’s about a guy who comes back to New Hampshire for his father’s funeral and finds an unfinished manuscript, purportly written by the old man – a ghost story called “The Black Wing”, about a house with an entire wing that can only be seen from inside the house, and the curse of the family that lives there.
Soon, our hero realizes that the house and the curse are real…and the family in question is his own.
IFP: How do you balance writing tie-ins with original fiction? Is there any overlap in themes or types of characters/plots between the two?
JS: I love overlaps, whenever possible. It’s no coincidence that the virus in Death Troopers has the same name as the cursed story in No Doors. And there’s a guy in No Doors sitting at a bar reading a copy of Death Troopers. Thematically, of course, there’re all kinds of commonality – dread is dread, and the elements that make supernatural fiction work, the things that make your skin crawl and leave you sleepless and staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night, have the same requirements, whether you’re working in George Lucas’ sandbox, or your own. You need to lay the groundwork and create sympathetic characters whose relationships resonate personally with the reader, who react in a compelling and persuasive way, before you can trot out the scares. Otherwise, you might as well be writing Saw VII, or whatever.
IFP: What artistic accomplishment are you the most proud of in your career so far?
JS: I don’t know. I have two kids, ages six and eight, and they’re constantly asking me to tell them stories, usually when I’m driving them somewhere. I’ve told literally hundreds of them on demand…scary ones, funny ones, suspenseful ones, fractured fairy tales, and I’m always trying to do something new and top what I’ve done before. They’re a pretty discerning audience at this point. The other day, I was telling them a story about a guy who, due to various complex circumstances, has to break into his own house to steal back a priceless coin collection that he only just learned was there. There are all these obstacles that he has to overcome, and when I finally got to the part where he goes to uncover the coins, there’s a note that said, “I found them first, and you’ll never get them.” At which point, my daughter sat up and exclaimed, “The coins were gone?” I’d managed to come up with a twist that literally had her jump out of her car seat. I was pretty proud of that moment.
IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft/Mythos monster (or character), which one would you be? Why? Do you have a favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story? If so, which one is it?
JS: The answer to both of these questions goes back to a lifelong obsession that I’ve had with Antarctica, much like Lovecraft himself. Something about that bleak landscape just calls to me. I came up with a whole fake writers’ conference at McMurdo Base…two weeks of solitude and silence. So, I guess anybody out of “At the Mountains of Madness”. I actually really like Dan Simmons’ recent book, The Terror, for the same reasons, although that’s also got a healthy dose of Poe and John Carpenter in there, too.
IFP: Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
JS: I’ve got the new Star Wars book coming at the end of the year. And I’m writing a supernatural, something’s-in-the-water book called “Stillwater“, which I’ve been touting as Jaws meets Ordinary People. Spoiler alert: Jaws wins. The [other]…is an upcoming project that I just sold to Houghton Mifflin – my YA novel, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick, is coming out in Fall 2011.
IFP: What is your dream project?
JS: I want to design a haunted roller coaster, a combination of haunted house and thrill ride, with a completely unnerving backstory that you can put together beforehand through a seamless skein of online video and written narrative. Although it could be enjoyed by itself, the ride would be the ultimate piece of the puzzle for those who were bold enough to fully unfold its labyrinths – after you stepped off of it, all the other parts would click diabolically into place. Optimally, the rider would be left profoundly shaken, simultaneously obsessed by the experience and questioning whether or not the entire thing actually happened, or was just a deeply unsettling dream.
Bio: Joe Schreiber was born in Michigan, but grew up everywhere from Alaska to Wyoming to northern California. He graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and sold his first novel, Next of Kin, to Putnam two years later. Since then, he has published five novels and a travel guide to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where eventually, he met his wife. He has worked as a petsitter, a celebrity ghost writer and a book store clerk, and currently works as an MRI technologist in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his family. Visit him on Facebook or at www.scaryparent.blogspot.com.