Michael Prescott Interview

MP: As a kid, I read a lot of short fiction. Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison have both worked primarily in that format. But as an adult, I seem to have lost my taste for it. I prefer reading novels now. I think John Gardner has said that writing short stories doesn't help you to learn how to write a novel, because the two formats are so different. A short story is a sprint; a novel is a marathon. This is probably true, although you can at least practice techniques like writing dialogue or descriptive passages in a short story, and if you can get it published, it's a big morale boost. But if you can't sell it, don't despair. The market for short fiction is so limited today that it may be easier to sell a 400-page novel than a 4-page story! 

FF: How do you decide on which point of view to write from? Do you have a personal preference, or is each piece different for you? What about in your reading--do you prefer reading one POV over another?

MP: I generally avoid reading fiction written in the first person. There are exceptions -- I've enjoyed Steven Saylor's series of mystery novels set in ancient Rome, all written from the point of view of his irascible detective, Gordianus the Finder. But mostly I dislike first-person narratives. I can't imagine writing any long piece of fiction in the "I" voice. It feels too restrictive to me, too confining.

Sometimes I write a scene from one character's point of view, and if it feels flat, I try it from the point of view of somebody else. This can make all the difference. For instance, if a man and woman are arguing, and it doesn't work when written from the man's point of view, try it from the woman's.

Generally speaking, if there is danger in the scene, you want to be in the point of view of the endangered party. That's where the suspense comes from -- being in that person's shoes. So if an ax murderer is chasing a housewife through an abandoned shopping mall, you want to be the housewife, if possible. Her reaction is where the terror is focused, so it's where the reader's identification should be focused, as well. Of course, there are always exceptions.

One rule of thumb is to stick with one character's point of view for the duration of the scene-- don't jump back and forth between the housewife and the ax murderer without indicating a scene break. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Robert McCammon, just to name one successful writer, violated it all the time, no doubt intentionally. In THE STAND, Stephen King starts out just using one point of view per scene, but as the characters' lives become increasingly interconnected and they start to establish a "group identity," he begins to interweave their points of view within the same scene. Again, whatever works.

FF: Where do you come up with your plot ideas? Where did the whole religion and mythology theme come from in COMES THE DARK?

MP: It came from my interest in the subject. I'd read a few books on the Greek myths, and I'd read the ancient Greek tragedies and the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, which are the greatest literary presentations of those myths. I had not gone deeper into the origins of the Greek religion until I started seriously researching the book.

How did I come up with the plot? That was a rather odd experience. I had thought of a few elements of the story but couldn't see any way to put it together, so I just forgot about it. Actually, I got frustrated, fed up with thinking about the whole thing, and simply put it out of my mind. I went to bed thinking that I would never come up with a decent story idea. The next day, as I was doing some chores around the house, I suddenly had the urge to try again. I powered on my laptop computer and started typing a synopsis. And the words just came. The title, the characters, the setting, the theme, the several parallel plot lines, and all the main plot twists--everything just came to me. It was as if I was simply typing, and someone else was doing the actual writing. A few times I started to slow down, and then I would say aloud, "What's next?" And, boom, the pump would be primed again, and more words would come. When I finished after an hour or two, I had a complete synopsis that contained all the essentials of the story. Before I sat down, I had nothing workable at all. Nothing like this has happened to me before or since.

I know that the obvious explanation is that my subconscious put the story together while I slept. This may be true, but I wonder if it isn't a rather facile explanation.  Subconscious" is a catchall word like "instinct." (How do birds know when to fly south?Instinct. What's instinct? It's what tells birds when to fly south...) Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the right cerebral hemisphere, which excels at pattern recognition and symbolic insights, put the story together while my logical left hemisphere was
busy with other things. Even this seems like too prosaic an explanation. In any case, if you want to know where I got the idea for COMES THE DARK, the answer is -- out of nowhere!

FF: Do you find it easier or more challenging to write believable characters of the opposite sex? Can you share any tips for writing across gender lines?

MP: I think it's actually easier to write female characters, because women are generally more open about their emotions and can show a wider range of feelings. You can have a female character that becomes very upset and starts to cry, then pulls herself together -- and she can still be tough, can still be a hero. Try doing that with a male character. Imagine Philip Marlowe crying in his office because he's having relationship problems, then going off to solve a crime. It probably won't work. Men, particularly heroes, have to operate in pretty restrictive emotional straitjackets. This limits their vulnerability and their accessibility. They tend to be stiff, reserved, and therefore relatively uninteresting. At least I think so. Many writers, I'm sure, would disagree. To take just one example, Michael Connelly has done a great job with his continuing character, Harry Bosch, a cop who's tough and strong but hardly unemotional. But it's awfully hard to pull off a characterization like that.