Today's guest, Tobin Elliott is one of the most fascinating writers I had a chance to interview. If you love horror and books similar to Stephen King's Carrie today's interview maybe just for you.
I'd like to start this post with a story that Tobin told me about himself which I like to quote directly here: "lived most of my life in a fairly large city, but I spent some transformative years in a very small northern town (this becomes more important in later questions, I promise!). I’ve been married thirty years to a lovely, funny woman, and I have a daughter who’s 28 and a son who’s 25.
A couple of years ago, I was let go from my corporate job where I was a Communications Specialist. I decided it was the right time to sort of retire, so I did. Now, I work part-time at two different places. When I was young, it was always my dream to work in one of three places: a book store, a record store, or a comic book store. Well, I work at a book store that also sells albums, and my other job is at a comic store. Kind of livin’ the dream with the part-time jobs. And, with the free time I now have (between retirement and lockdowns), I’ve really jumped back into the writing game.
Now that you know Tobin a bit more now (if you haven't before this post), let's ask him some questions.
Tobin. I'd like to ask you a difficult question first. Can you give me an example of when first you thought outside of the box when it comes to writing?
That’s not an easy question! This may not be horribly “out of the box” for most, but I will say it was transformative for me and taught me a huge lesson. As I was writing my first novel (about a massive demon being summoned inside a high school), I was doing really well with the writing. I was a good 150 pages in when I hit a snag. My characters were in the high school cafeteria. It was on fire. There’s one exit. And I had that big demon show up and block the one and only exit.
I had literally written myself into a corner. And I had no idea how to get them out. I stopped writing for three weeks because I had no solution. Finally, I decided, to heck with it. I know they escape. They have to. I’ll just jump ahead and write from where they escaped to, and carry on. I’ll write the in-between bit, the escape when it finally comes to me.
Turns out, I got exactly three sentences into where they’d ended up, and I had the solution, fully formed, pop into my head. And yet, I’d had to ignore the straight-line writing approach this time to kickstart the process again. What I learned from that was to trust the process, trust my mind to come up with the solution without necessarily telling me until the time was right. For me, that’s out of the box.
What is your genre and why do you like to write in this field? I see a lot of similarities between your genre and transgressive fiction. Do you think you may categorize your books under this genre?
My genre is horror. I love it because, while I’d started out reading almost anything, but mostly science fiction, it wasn’t until I read Stephen King’s Carrie that I had my mind truly blown and began to entertain the thought that perhaps I could do this type of writing as well.
Also, there’s a deeper, more visceral element to writing horror. I make no secret of having lived through some very rough stuff. My father was an abusive, violent alcoholic. My stepfather was mentally abusive. Later in life, my mother took up the challenge of being abusive to me. My story is far from unique. But I find, with horror, I can lift the scabs a bit and poke around in the wounds. I can call up the demons, but I can also bend them to my will. Horror is my way of redefining the evil I’ve seen in the world.
So, to be very clear, I’m not the one that enjoys a lot of gore in my horror. I like the horror that comes from a reader’s mind roiling in the dread of the horrible things that may happen (and often do). My horror comes as much from supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, and demons as it does from that person that lives in the same house as you that you thought you knew.
Most of us writers who categorize our work under transgressive write for the same very reason and what the result is, can be, a piece of what was missing in the past, what is painful in the present, and what may scare us about the future.
I’m not wholly sure I’d consider my work transgressive. I believe there are absolutely elements there because I do have my outside-of-the-norms characters and often, they have a burn-it-all-to-the-ground perspective to solving their problems. Occasionally it works, more often, it creates a greater problem to be solved. I read somewhere that, in writing fiction, the writer should chase his characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them.
I tend to drive my characters out into the desert for forty days and forty nights with no water, no food, no shelter. And, just when they’re going to collapse, that’s when I set their world alight in flame and pestilence. I try not to do anything halfway. Is that transgressive if they can somehow find their way out of that? I’ll let the readers decide. But is it what we as a society face on a daily basis? Sadly, I think, for some, it’s so.
That can be Transgressive. Well, Tobin, what is your current book about? What did you edit out of it?
My current book is the culmination of the five novels that came prior to it. I didn’t start out to write a six-book series, but here we are.
These novels are mostly set in or around the town of New Hope, which is a thinly-veiled version of that small northern town I lived in back when I was an impressionable teenager. The next town over from ours had the dubious reputation as “the Vampire Capital of Canada.” It was enough to get a long-gestating idea about eventually writing some nebulous story set in the area. Which I eventually did.
The current novel is, at its heart, about going through the fires of Hell to be forged into the person you were always meant to be. But on the surface, it’s the story of Monica in 2012, missing the father she never met. He died in a horrifying supernatural event in 1984, a month before she was born.
But, she finds a card with the phone number of the place where her father worked. In a fit of misery and loneliness, she calls the number and gets her father. And he says, “Oh thank god. I didn’t think you were going to call again.”
So starts the mystery, and the resolution that brings back characters from all the previous five novels in what I jokingly refer to as my own Avengers: Endgame novel. Only there are no superheroes, and there’s a lot of supernatural creatures working both sides of the aisle.
Wow. Spoilers alert! How much of it you're editing?
Only one thing. Monica was far too settled and happy at the start. I had to have her a little more beaten down by life.
What was your hardest scene to write and in which book?
The hardest scene was me beating Monica down. Without going too much into details, there’s a plot point that occurs, and it basically leaves Monica with PTSD and panic attacks, both of which she tries to drown in self-medicating alcoholic blackouts. I wanted to tie it back to something from earlier in her life, just to give it more depth, more verisimilitude.
I came up with an idea. I flat-out refused to do the daddy abused me trope, because it’s overused. Instead, I came up with an idea that I thought would be gut-wrenching, but illustrative of her plight.
Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that my writer’s brain can be a fickle bastard at times. Much like it provided the solution for my characters as I noted in the first question, I’ve also found that, despite knowing how a scene will go, at times my fingers are hijacked by that writer’s brain and they type out a wholly different scene to what I’d planned. And, while it can be irritating, I’ve also learned to trust it, because it’s always the better route. Rockier and more scenic.
Sounds like a predicament!
Man, it was rough. I literally typed out the last third of the scene with my hands shaking, and tears streaming down my face. It was very, very real, and very visceral. I hadn’t planned on it, I didn’t want to write it. Even later, when talking to my wife about the scene, once again, I ended up sobbing as I relayed it to her.
That’s never ever happened to me before. It’s an awful, horrible scene that, once again, works because it comes from reality. There’s a monster in the scene, but he’s completely human. Not a supernatural entity to be found in the scene. And it’s all the more horrifying because of it.
I consider it probably one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, and likely the closest I’ll ever come to writing like one of my personal writing heroes, Jack Ketchum (pen name for Dallas Mayr). If you haven’t read Jack, you should. You’ll never be the same afterward.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I despise researching, so I do as little as humanly possible. Usually, I’ll research on the fly, as I’m writing, because I know I won’t get pulled down a bunch of rabbit holes, simply because I don’t enjoy the act of research. I get in, find what I need, check it for accuracy with a couple of other sources, then go. The only time I researched ahead of time was when I wrote the third book in the six-book series. It was based on an actual event that occurred back in 1911, so I did some pre-reading before I started writing.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
All of them! I had a good run about 7-10 years ago, where I got three novellas published, and several short stories. Now, none of them are in print anymore. But, for the record, the six-book series is four novels and two novellas, all written and edited and ready to go.
Half-finished books? I’ve started two, but neither is likely longer than 10-20 pages in, and they weren’t ever going to work. I also have about five stories or so, varying in length from 3000-12000 words, and I have two more that I’m currently working on. I tend to be a one-project-at-a-time writer. I also have two other novel ideas percolating in notebooks and my writer’s brain.
That's the life of a born writer! Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
I do! I love leaving little easter eggs for astute readers to find. Neat little allusions that my world is attached to the world of other, favorite novels I’ve read. A subtle character mentions from one story to another, so that if you get to read my full body of work, you’ll see the gossamer strands that connect them all.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?