As horror lovers, we have a particular relationship to the darkness. While we live our lives as upstanding citizens, we know that anyone is capable of succumbing to more unsavory tendencies. In his new collection, THESE EVIL THINGS WE DO, writer Mick Garris explores those obscene urges through tales that will delight any fan of fictional fear.
I had the pleasure of talking with Mick about his writing process, the creation of this collection, and the touch of darkness living in us all.
Most folks know you as a director, but you have a long history writing fiction and nonfiction. I believe I read that you were a rock journalist as young as fifteen. But when did the fiction writing start? Was it around that time?
Mick Garris: It was actually even earlier when I was about twelve years old. I was reading everything Ray Bradbury, and I was watching monster movies on TV, in the middle of my parent’s divorce breaking down.
[At] first I thought I was going to be an artist. My father was a trained artist. He had been schooled and was really good, but [he] was never able to make his living at it. So that’s what I started doing first, although I never trained at it. But once I started writing short stories – and they were spooky short stories when I was twelve – that was when I got the bug. I drew for a bit after that, but [from then on] I pretty much concentrated entirely on writing, and then later on filmmaking. So I was a writer second, after wanting to be a cartoonist. And then I started writing journalism when I was in high school.
What is your process? Do you outline or are you a seat-of-the-pants type of writer?
Mick Garris: I write very quickly. I used to think, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could spend a lot of time [on my writing]? I wonder how much better my writing would be?” And I found that if I’m struggling with it, or it’s taking a lot of time, that it’s shitty. It comes out well if it comes out easy.
I rarely outline, but when you’re a writer for hire, as in screenwriting, that’s part of the job. You have to outline.
But when I’m writing my fiction, it’s solace from working on films because I’m writing alone. I’m writing just for the page and the love of the language on the page. The words matter, whereas writing a screenplay is a blueprint.
So my process is to have an idea [and] once I sit down my hands start taking over. My fingers do the writing more than my brain, and I work very intuitively. That’s not to say I don’t do re-writing. Whenever I’m writing a project, I’ll usually start reading from the beginning [up] to where I left off so that I’m back into it. Then I find myself tinkering with everything that comes up, too. But I work in a very intuitive way in the hopes of staving off any kind of mental freeze or writer’s block.
That is interesting that you review the whole work every time you come to it. Do you find that slows you down at all?
Mick Garris: If I’m a hundred pages in, I don’t go back and start at page one again. But I will back up ten to twenty pages before I start, and I always find that there are tweaks to be made. But they’re usually minor. I rarely go back and restructure before I finish doing the first draft.
There’s something Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, which to me is the greatest book on the creative process, ever. He says the first draft is your own. Don’t show it to anyone while you’re doing it. That’s yours. You own it completely and let your heart and soul pour into that. When you’re ready to polish it and you want to show people and get input, that’s great. But that first draft is what’s most important. I found those to be words of wisdom for me.
That’s a great point. I’m working on something right now that people have asked to see a few bits of, and I’ve been tempted. But I think you’re right. They can wait.
Mick Garris: Yeah, well, just tell them Stephen King told you [that] you couldn’t.
You said something that really struck me about how your fingers are doing the writing more than any other part of you. I feel like there’s a thing with fiction that isn’t talk about a lot. Maybe it’s just me, and it’s some kind of delightful psychosis I have. But when I’m in the zone, it’s almost like I’m watching the characters do things in front of me in this sort of space in front of my mind. Is that what you mean by letting your fingers do the writing?
Mick Garris: Yeah, I think it’s being in it. I’ve never not been in the zone. When I sit down to write, I’m in the zone. That is the process: just sitting in front of a keyboard and starting to type puts me in that story.
An author is all of the characters. If you’re writing about someone else from the outside in, you can feel it. You’ve got to write it from the inside out, as an empath. Even though [the character] may have none of your psychological characteristics, you have to understand him from the inside out. And that is what I think you’re talking about. You feel you’re inside the story, and you’re not forcing it to follow a path. You’re allowing the story to tell itself, to unfold itself. And you guide it along because you are each one of the characters – and more importantly [you are] the narrator, if you’re writing in the third person.
But to your point, a lot of my fiction is written in the first person. Another mentor of mine, Richard Matheson, said: “Film is external, whereas fiction is internal.” And that was a very profound statement [for me] because you’re writing about things that happened inside, whereas [with] film, you have to tell a story from the outside.
This collection has some very compelling characters, from desperate down-and-out artists to easily repulsed plastic surgeons. Some writers stick close to home when it comes to their characters. Are your characters ever based on real people, or are your inspirations more abstract?
Mick Garris: They’re all three-dimensional human beings. They’re based not necessarily on specific people, but they’re based on circumstances that I try to understand from the inside out. You [mentioned] the plastic surgeon in “Ugly.” He’s a despicable human being, and he represents so many things that I find repellent. But to get inside him, and think like him, that’s our job. We need to be understanding of even the foulest human beings and understand their motivations so that we can flesh them out, and predict what their movements are going to be, and what their reactions or interactions are going to be. So they’re not necessarily based on people that I know. Sometimes I’ll take my worst personality traits and amplify them a thousand-fold until they’re really despicable.
As you know, the collection of novellas in the book is titled “Awful People.” I think all of us have awful people living in us. One of the great exercises that authors are allowed to have is [that] we let our awful people out to play. Sometimes they meet a terrible demise because of it, and other times, as in the current case of our nation, they become the President.
As you said, the first half of the collection has the overarching title of “Awful People,” but after reading the stories, I found myself empathizing with more than a few of them. Do you really view them as awful or is that title more tongue-in-cheek?
Mick Garris: No, you know, I don’t. I think particularly in the case of “Free.” The lead character is an identifiable person – a sympathetic and empathetic person – who feels that she herself is awful because of the actions she has taken. I think it is not necessarily tongue-in-cheek, but ironic, the title “Awful People,” because we all have committed acts that we regret. It doesn’t make us awful people. But at the time we may have done some awful things, or things that we feel guilty about. We carry that guilt with us throughout our lives. [The title] is a little ironic in that sense.
“Free” is just a stunning story and a fantastic start to the collection. I’m not a huge fan of the vague question “how did you come up with this idea,” but I am curious what inspired your writing of it.
Mick Garris: Well, thank you. I really wanted to try to write in the first person as a female character to see if I could pull it off. The Shining is all about the guilt a father feels because his alcoholism forced him to hurt his own son. In this case, I know people whose kids drive them crazy and wish they could just leave. And what if that happened? I wanted to put myself in the position of that.
Originally, I wasn’t sure if it was going to go supernatural or not. But it begged to become a ghost story. What greater way to infiltrate guilty feelings [and] the self-loathing that a good person with a conscience would feel if she was driven to do something that no one else dares to do? It was an experiment to see if I could convincingly play the part of a mother to twin children who were driving her crazy. I’ve been really gratified that female readers have responded so positively to it.
Let’s talk about the horror of it all. As a fellow horror writer, I often know the horrible places I need to take my characters, but I have a bit of resistance, at first, to take them there. I feel bad about torturing them. In this collection, your characters are tortured, cannibalized, and haunted in more ways than one. Do you ever feel a little guilty for birthing fictional people only to destroy them?
Mick Garris: Frankly, no. I think it’s a great way to relieve yourself of aggression in safety. You know, most of those [characters] who are tortured, or traumatized, or cannibalized are me, or at least they’re parts of me.
The first short story I wrote that was published in a mainstream book was “A Life in the Cinema,” which became the lead story in my first collection. It was first published in a book David J. Schow edited called Silver Scream. Splatterpunk was big at the time. I challenged myself, once again: Could I go places that I had been too timid to go? [Places] that Clive Barker had no problems going to, that Stephen King had no problems going to. Could I take the filters off enough and open my wounds broadly enough to bleed onto the page and to not self-censor. It was really liberating, but it also felt really horrific.
So I was put into a book with a bunch of other Splatterpunks and going “How can I compete with these guys?” – including King, Barker, [John] Skipp and [Craig] Spector, and so many other writers within the genre. [After publication] I had so many people say, “Whoa, yours went way worse than anybody else’s.” And it was gratifying and humiliating at the same time. But to be a good author – particularly in the horror genre – is to be bold and to not fear the consequences of bearing yourself.
You have a profound skill at verb metaphors. Some of my favorites in this collection refer to a highway “birthing a new litter of cars” or a charging cell phone as “drinking electricity.” They really enrich the stories and are a delight to read. Do you actively cultivate these, or do they come naturally?
Mick Garris: I used to be a singer in a band, and I was always funny on stage with my bandmates. Working within the arts, you’re an entertainer, whether you’re a performer, or a writer, or a filmmaker. And I find playful language to be so exhilarating and inspirational. I’m trying to use wordplay in a way to convey a mood, or an atmosphere, or a personality that is playful and has a sense of humor about it. So even when it’s about the darkest story or really horrendous circumstances, I’m always feeling playful as a writer. I enjoy the actual process. And as a reader, I’m trying to entertain myself as well.
Narration that is “just the facts, ma’am” is boring to me. [For example] Gillian Flynn excites me because she has that kind of wordplay as well. It’s playful. It’s not necessarily comedic, but it’s playful. It shows an understanding of the language that you really want to wrap around you like a blanket.
Have you read any good books lately?
Mick Garris: I think my favorite book I’ve read lately is Grady Hendrix’s latest book, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I just love it. It’s playful. It’s brutal. It’s scary. And it feels incredibly filled with veracity. It feels like he’s living in it. And all [his] characters are people who I admire, or I identify with, or I feel like I can understand where they come from. That’s been my favorite book I’ve read recently.
A hearty thanks to Mick Garris for taking the time to speak with us. For more on THESE EVILS THINGS WE DO, check out our review here. THESE EVILS THINGS WE DO is out now and is available in ebook and paperback.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.