About a year ago I started adding writers on Facebook. I didn’t discriminate. I sent a friend request to anyone with “author” in their bio, or anyone who posted on writing forums. I figured it would be nice to have some like-minded people on my news feed. I wanted to see less anger and relationship issues and more posts about books and writing.
Allison M. Dickson was one of the writers I added, and she stood out early on. I could tell from her posts she knew how to write. But even though I looked out for her updates, I didn’t think about purchasing any of her work. I’ve been burned too many times in the past. I usually only pay for authors guaranteed to entertain me, such as Stephen King, Ben Elton, Dennis Lehane, etc.
Then one day Allison offered up her novel, Strings, for free. I downloaded it and left it on my Kindle for another three or four months, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Otherwise I would have heard about her, right? She’d be on every bookshelf in every shop or library. Well, that was my mistake. When I finally got around to reading Strings, I realised how wrong I’d been. It had everything I liked in a book: mystery, horror, gruesome murder scenes, a twisted sense of humour, plenty of swearing, and most importantly: great writing. If she hadn’t offered it for free, I might never have read it. But now I’ll definitely be parting money in the future for Allison’s books. And I hope some of you will check out her novels too.
I recently got in touch with her and she was kind enough to take time from her schedule to answer some questions about Strings, her upcoming projects, and her writing process. Check it out.
GK: I got through Strings pretty quickly. It’s a great book, but probably the most gruesome and twisted thing I’ve ever read (I mean this in the most complimentary way). What’s the response been from people who know you? Were they surprised by the content? Did anyone try to section you?
AD: Overall the response to Strings has been incredibly positive, which has surprised me. Even my mother loved it, and I mean in an effusively praising way, and not the pat response of, “Nice job, dear.” Yeah, a lot of people are surprised by the visceral content, but what I’ve found with this book in particular is that people tend to enjoy it despite the gruesomeness. They surprise themselves by their ability to weather it, and it feels like an achievement for them by the end. That was actually one of my goals when setting out to write a book like this. Could I make people put aside their squeamishness and stick with these frankly awful characters all the way until the end? I think I’ve more or less succeeded there.
GK: Strings started off as a short story. What inspired you to expand it into a novel?
AD: The original short story, “The Good Girls,” ended when Nina had her first encounter with the freak in the Ballas house, with Ramon sitting outside listening to it all go down business as usual. It was intended to be a short tale about how people suffer from inertia. They go into something terrible expecting it to be different, only to find they’re not all that special after all. There were readers who wanted to see what happened after the events of that story. Where does Ramon go? What was the Madam’s story? Does Nina actually survive? These turned out to be really easy questions to expand upon.
GK: And in-line with the last question, what was the original inspiration behind the story? A lot of stories start with a WHAT-IF . . . Were you like: WHAT IF I WROTE THE WORLD’S MOST FUCKED UP BOOK?
AD: Actually, that’s not too far off. One of my main drives, thematically, was to see if I could write an entire book where there are no heroes or good guys, but where you root for them anyway. I love stories that challenge our sympathies. Even the worst people have something relatable. But the initial seed for the story was talking about hermits and social isolation with a friend of mine, and what an experience would be like for a working girl to visit someone like this. The visual elements of the “web” in the Ballas house was inspired by scenes from The Aviator, the biopic about Howard Hughes.
GK: I read somewhere (it might have been your Facebook) about a possible sequel. Do you have that planned out yet, or is it still in the idea stage?
AD: The sequel to Strings is called The Moon Gone Dark, and it’s near completion and scheduled for release in April of 2016! I’m excited to show people what these characters have been up to since the first book wrapped. There are a lot of surprises.
GK: If you found yourself trapped in the Hank Ballas residence and he gave you one last request before he (or his spider-son) skewered you, what would you ask for?
AD: Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
GK: For some reason, the madam reminded me of Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove. I kept picturing her in every scene. If Strings was turned into a film one day, do you have any actors or actresses in mind for the characters?
AD: I would love to see the madam being played by Frances Fisher or Tilda Swinton. Those were the two I had most in mind while I was writing. Ramon, I always imagined being played by Jimmy Smits. Krysten Ritter would make a smashing Nina.
GK: I noticed a Stephen King influence throughout the book, especially during the inner monologue stuff. Who are your other influences?
AD: You’re definitely spot on with Stephen King. He’s always been a huge influence on my work. Gillian Flynn is also a really big influence of mine. We both seem drawn toward creating dark and difficult characters.
GK: I’ve seen you post a lot recently about a Ted Bundy novel — it’s an interesting concept. Could you explain it for those who don’t know?
AD: I’m very excited about this one (and so is my agent!). Several months back, when Ann Rule passed away, I decided to finally pick up her most famous book, The Stranger Beside Me, which is the definitive Bundy book. In it, she discussed her time working with Bundy at a crisis hotline at the University of Washington. Particularly, she mentioned how great he was on the phones with people and that he might have very well saved a number of lives during his tenure there. I immediately started to think about one of the lives Bundy might have saved, and how dark legacies and unintended consequences tend to be born from seemingly good acts. It bounces across several decades in time and follows three generations of a family in the aftermath of Bundy’s unwitting influence of saving the life of someone who maybe shouldn’t have gone on living. In many ways, it’s darker than Strings, though the gore level is quite low.
GK: Do you have any other novels on the back-burner? I sometimes find I have five or six ideas and I’ll be flipping between them until I finally decide which one to go ahead with next.
AD: Oh yes, there are several irons in the fire at all times. After I finish the Bundy book in January, I have to put the finishing touches on the Strings sequel. After that, I plan to get some more short stories written. I will then have the next book in the Colt Coltrane series to start working on in the spring of 2016. Hopefully in that period of time, my agent will be able to find a publisher for the books of mine she currently has.
AD: Ian and I have been friends for a long time, and we had always wanted to work on a book together. The concept of a steampunk space opera originated in his mind, and we took it from there. We’re really good at bouncing ideas off of one another, so the actual plot and story outline came together really quickly for us.
GK: How did you find the process of co-authoring? And how did you work it between the two of you — a chapter each? A character each?
AD: He took on the role of the dashing young hero, Jonathan Orbital, and I took on the brash and gritty space pirate, Phinneas Greaves. From there, we alternated chapters, following the outline we put together. Once one of us wrote a chapter, the other would edit it and then he would assemble it into a master document. Though we had a number of things come up that forced us to take a hiatus (I moved from Washington to Ohio the year we started it, and so several months went down the tubes), the actual writing time was pretty quick and streamlined.
GK: When you went back to edit it, were there any arguments about what to keep in and what to change, etc.?
AD: That’s one place where I think we had some growing pains. The first finished product went around to some agents and publishers and beta readers, and that’s where we were finally made aware of some flaws in the book. We couldn’t quite agree on what needed to be fixed. Most of it was character development related. In the grander scheme, not that much work, but we agreed to trunk it because we each seemed to be going our own separate paths in our careers. I had Strings coming out and his Just Cause series was finally taking off. But after a couple years we agreed to revisit it and release it ourselves under his Local Hero Press imprint. So the book was a very long time coming, but we’re thrilled with how the book came out and hope people love it.
GK: How long were you writing for and how many books had you written before you had something traditionally published?
AD: Well, I was very lucky in that when I returned to writing fiction in 2008, I had one of my first short stories (“Aria”) accepted into an anthology a few months later. Not long after that, I had a few more short stories published in online magazines. I didn’t actually finish writing my first novel until 2009 or thereabouts. I self-published my first two novels after they’d been rejected by many agents (I don’t recommend doing this, by the way), and eventually took them down from the market. They will likely remain in the trunk for all of eternity. My first traditionally published novel was Strings in 2013, and it was the fifth novel I’d finished. In many ways, it was the right debut for me.
GK: What’s your writing process? Are you a morning person or a night owl?
AD: I’m both, actually. I don’t have a regular day job, so that affords me the ability to get a chunk of writing done in the morning and afternoon. When the kids get home, it’s all about them. I don’t pick things back up until after my husband goes to bed, and I work for a couple hours and call it done. It really depends on the book whether my day sessions or my night sessions are more fruitful. Right now, the Bundy book seems to be a daytime book.
GK: Sometimes I read a book and think — I wish I wrote that. Can you think of any novels you wished you’d written?
GK: Finally, what are 5 books you’d recommend?
AD: Some recent favorites of mine have been Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I am also currently loving a number of the stories in Stephen King’s latest collection, Bazaar of Bad Dreams.
She might not be on every bookshelf of every shop and library . . . but she should be.
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