Author Interview: Tobin Elliott

  1. Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
    I’ve always been a voracious reader, but over the years, I can point to four authors and two specific books that really helped me find my own path as a writer.

    The first is no surprise. Stephen King is a born storyteller and, as much as I have been a constant reader, King has been a constant inspiration, finding horror in the commonplace. However—and yes, I’m old enough to have started reading King when his first book hit the shelves—it was CARRIE, his first, about an outsider, an outcast, a girl bullied for being different, for being weird, that really resonated with me, a teenager as well, also bullied, also an outsider, also weird. King reached right into my head and spoke to aspects of my life no one had ever mentioned before. It’s where I first thought, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can tell stories like this, too.

    Ray Bradbury has a way with language, a way of lining up his thoughts, that speaks to me. Bradbury makes me feel things—small town horrors, insidiously quiet fears, the beauty and desolation that lives in the quiet—that I always wanted to try and capture as well.

    H.P. Lovecraft imagined a universe that’s constantly teetering on destruction from beings so fearsome, so alien, so powerful that we’ll go mad simply looking on them. He created a pantheon of beings that were as different—and indifferent—to us as we are to the ants under our feet. And he was able to make us feel that terror. I wanted to give readers that same wondrous terror.

    And finally, Dallas Mayr, better known as Jack Ketchum, showed us that the worst monsters were those who lived among us. He very effectively illuminated the fact that humans are the worst monsters. And he showed us at our absolute worst in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. This was the book that showed me I could push harder with my writing. If I could learn to write well, I could tell stories like King, and line up those thoughts that made my readers feel the intimate fears like Bradbury, and I could even show my readers the wonder of mind-breaking terror like Lovecraft. But Ketchum? He gave me the permission to go deep enough to make it hurt.
  2. Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?
    Hell yes. I’ve modeled a few of my characters with traits from those whom I both loved and loathed. I had a reasonably troubled childhood, and I’ve been able to take some of the people responsible for that, capture their essence, and make those demons from my past dance to my tune for a change. There’s very much a therapeutic aspect to that.

    I’ve been careful to not draw completely from real events, and my characters are not carbon copies of their real-life inspirations. But I got the qualities in that I needed to. And then I made them dance.
  3. Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
    I have a good rapport with quite a few of my readers, and I’ve been lucky enough to have them be very honest with me. One of my closest relatives, a cousin of mine, messaged me after reading about half of the very first book of my six-book series, BAD BLOOD. And she said, “I’ve just reached the part where X happened. I’m just letting you know, I’m putting the book down. I’m not going to finish it, and I’m not going to read anything else by you. I love you, but I can only handle so much of your madness.” I took that as a huge compliment.

    On the other side, I’ve had two readers reach out to me directly after completing all six novels, and surprisingly, both said very similar things. They both told me they were feeling all sorts of emotions, from happiness at how much they enjoyed the entire series and how it wrapped up, to sadness at no longer having my characters in their lives. And that’s an amazing feeling for me, to know that this little story that I dreamed up in my head, and these characters that I created have left that much of an impression in someone else’s head. I love that.
  4. Do you play music while you write — and, if so, what’s your favorite?
    The answer is yes, however this one very much depends on what I’m writing.

    As an example, when I was writing OUT FOR BLOOD, which takes place in May of 1981, I only chose music that was released prior to that time. So there was a lot of 60s and 70s rock. And i do find the music influential, as it can inform the tone of the scene that I’m writing. A good example of this was, there was a point in the writing of that novel where I was trying to get into the head of one of my characters, who I had facing the fact that he was going to have to do some really horrible things. And then, right in the middle of that, the song Flaming Telepaths by Blue Öyster Cult came on. And I heard

    Is it any wonder that my mind’s on fire
    Imprisoned by the thought of what to do?

    And those words, my mind’s on fire, imprisoned by the thought of what to do, rolled around in my head. Yes, I thought, my character would literally feel like he’s imprisoned, trapped by what he had to do. It was the perfect feel. I was able to go in and write the scene the way I’d wanted to, because of those lines.

    There’s other times, for example, when I got an idea specifically from a single song, and I’ll play that one song on repeat. There’s been times in the last year where, had you come in while I was writing, you would have been treated to Glen Campbell singing Wichita Lineman over and over. Or the Bee Gees singing Nights on Broadway on repeat.

    Or the time I was writing a novella that took place mostly in Hell. That one had a playlist that was loud and angry. Alice in Chains. Godsmack. Nine Inch Nails. Tool. That sort of thing. It also helped set the tone for what I put down in that story.At times, the music is chosen to inform the mood.

    At times, the music chooses the mood.
  5. Have you ever killed off a character your readers loved?
    You could say that. I have a reader who tells me that, should we ever meet, she’s going to beat me up for killing off a couple of her favourites. In fact, she and one other reader have posted warnings on social media stating, “don’t fall in love with any of Tobin’s characters.”

    Here’s my thing about that, though… While I know this is fiction, and it’s completely my choice who lives and dies, what I’ve seen in real life is, the good ones are taken far too soon, and the bad ones? They stick around. Billy Joel was right when he sang only the good die young. So, in trying to make my novels of demons and werewolves and vampires and ancient, evil, sentient Books more grounded, I want to draw on what happens in the real world. And often, the real world hurts.

    And, one last point to mention. I will state this right now…when I write, I have a very short, bulleted list of major events that will occur. Usually between five and ten. And I have a good idea of how to end the story. Everything else that happens, happens as I write it, and I’m often as surprised as the reader will be that this character or that character didn’t make it. I’ll even go as far as saying, I truly had no conscious thought to kill off any of my characters before writing those scenes with the exception of one character who dies in the second book, OUT FOR BLOOD. That one I knew about. That one was planned. All the rest?

    Yeah, I was as surprised as the readers.
  6. What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
    Before you start: know the beginning, know at least two or three things in the middle, and know the end. One of the biggest barriers to completing a novel is starting without knowing where you’re going to end it. That, to me, is like trying to pack for a trip, but you don’t know if it’s an Arctic cruise, or a trip to Disney World. Do I pack my parka or my bathing suit?

    Whenyou start: as you sit down to write, give yourself permission to write badly. It does not have to be perfect, or even very good, in the first draft. You can fix it all in the second one. Just sit down and write. Get the whole thing down.

    There’s two quotes about writing that I love…

    The first is supposedly by Harlan Ellison, though I’ve never been able to confirm that, but it’s a killer quote. “Writing a novel is like traveling a very far distance to take a very small shit.”

    The second is from Ernest Hemingway. “The first draft of anything is shit.”
  7. What books have you read more than once in your life?
    I’ve read every single Stephen King at least twice, except for the last few…but I’ll get to them again.

    I’ve read the original DUNE trilogy at least five times, because I love those three books. The rest? Not so much. And the son’s efforts? Terrible.

    I’ve read Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOORthree times, and I’ll read it a few more before I’m done. It’s a masterclass in storytelling and writing.

    I’ve read the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (including THE HOBBITprequel) at least three times, and it’s another I’ll come back to.

    Robert R. McCammon’s BOY’S LIFEis another I come back to fairly often. It’s unlike anything he’s ever written before or since, and it was like he was channeling Ray Bradbury. Just a gorgeous book.

    And there’s a book that I’ve come back to every couple of years for at least the last twenty, because each time, I seem to find something new. Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCEholds a strange fascination for me. It’s a philosophical work on the nature of quality, while also being a semi-fictional memoir on the narrator losing his sanity, rediscovering it, then recognizing the same signs in his own son on an extended motorcycle trip. Brilliant, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking.
  8. What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
    Tough question. It depends…

    In one case, I had more of a feeling—someone obsessed with someone else and not knowing really how he got there—inspired by a song. All I knew is, the tone was going to be one of desperate desolation. So, a tone in need of both characters and story.

    I’ve also had the character first, with just a small scene, such as Talia with a squirrel in BAD BLOOD, that eventually expanded in scope. A character in need of a story.

    I’ve had the basic story—a boat goes down in a storm, and the survivors get to shore by holding on to the coffin that was on board—with no characters, which turned into BLOOD PACT. A story in need of characters.

    I’ve even had the story and the character—a demon gets released in a high school, and it’s up to the reluctant, immortal demon hunter to kill it, when all he really wants to do is die himself. That was the idea for OUT FOR BLOOD, but eventually that demon hunter character was completely removed, because he just wasn’t working. A story in need of different characters.

    And finally, I had the thought—while staring at an old bookmark of mine—that was more of a question. What if one of my characters, who’s father had died just before she was born, called the number of the bookstore he owned forty years ago? And what if he answered? And, what if he knew she was his daughter? And just like that, I had the entire story, and all the characters. That turned into the final book in the series, FLESH AND BLOOD.

    So, the answer to the why becomes more about what I know initially. And because of the way ideas come to me (see a couple of questions further on for more on that), what I know can be very fragmented.
  9. What do you do to get inside your character’s heads?
    I had to laugh when I saw this question, because you’re asking the wrong party. The fact of the matter is, I don’t get inside my characters’ heads. My characters get inside my head.

    When I write, and I start writing the characters, they’re usually quite basic at the beginning. More talking heads than anything. I know some stuff about them, but not everything. But, as they move through the story, they reveal themselves to me. Speech patterns emerge. Personalities come to the fore. There very often comes a point where they’re telling me how they’ll react in certain situations. I’ll know that, coming up, I have to have a character do something, or say something, or react in a certain way, but now that they’ve gotten inside my head, they’re in the background, shaking their head no. I know you want me to do that for the story, Tobin, but that’s not gonna happen. That’s not me. Now, shut up and step aside and let me handle this.

    I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone reading this, but that’s a very accurate representation of what happens when I write.
  10. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
    Ah, the eternal question…where do you get your ideas? Didn’t Stephen King once say he got them from a ranch where they were raised, or something like that?

    I get my ideas from everywhere. Song lyrics. News stories. Television shows. A really good quote from someone. A past experience.

    But more importantly, it’s never just a single idea. It’s a collision of ideas, and the ability to keep coming up with answers to a series of “what if?” and “what happens next?” questions.

    For example, there was a day when I had the television on for the kids, and the show they were watching—I’m pretty sure it was Stickin’ Around—had some story about, if I’m remembering properly, a kid who’s old lunches eventually mashed up into each other and turned into a monster in the school, then went on a rampage. Interesting thought number one.

    It brought to mind the story I’d heard about something that had happened at my high school a year or two before I got there. One of the kids, instead of throwing his homemade lunches out, instead just kept compacting them in his locker. It eventually led to a massive maggot infestation. Interesting thought number two.

    In the school I went to prior to the one with the maggots, I’d been mercilessly bullied. And, by the last year of high school, I was going through some horrible stuff at home that, had I been a more disturbed individual, would have had me committing criminal acts. Interesting thought number three.

    And then, the collision of those interesting thoughts: What if some kid was so bullied at home and at school that he was desperate for it to stop? What if he could summon a monster to stop the bullies? What if it didn’t go as planned? What happens next? What happens after that?

    That’s one example. But most of them go in that sort of fashion. One idea in isolation is okay. But when you take a second one, and smash them together, that’s where the magic happens. The magic is in the synchronicity.

    And, if you keep your eyes and ears open, and allow it all to crash into your writer’s brain, that’s where the stories begin to manifest.

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