Interview: Quentin Dodd

Not too long ago we came across Snake Year Press and recognized this as being a reference to The Face in the Frost. It’s a small independent publishing outfit created by author Quentin Dodd who also happens to be a fan of John and his books. Anyone whose book titles include Beatnik Rutabagas from Beyond the Stars and Tommy Frasier and the Planet of the Slugs probably has something to say and - as that’s the name of the blog - we asked Quentin about life, reading, writing and why he chose that for a name from anything else he could have chosen.
Yeah, so how did that name come about?

I’ve always loved the scene in The Face in the Frost where the crazed old man unnerves Prospero in the basement of the Five Dials inn. I had the idea that if I ever opened a vineyard, I was going to call it “Snake Year Winery” in tribute to that scene. When it became clear that I was going to start a small press a lot sooner than I was going to start a winery, I grabbed the “Snake Year” name and ran with it.

It’s a little entity that I put together to explore new methods of publishing here in the twenty-first century. I published my first two books with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, then spent some time working on an independent film. When I got back around to writing books, my editor had left FSG and I felt like I was starting over, so I decided to experiment with being my own publisher. I’m surprised how rewarding this has been. I never realized how much I like being my own boss.

Tell us about your books: when did you know you wanted to write? How would you describe your work for those unfamiliar?

My books are comedies for young readers. They’re mostly science fiction, but the latest one, Tennis Camp of the Living Dead, is a contemporary spooky tale. (I always hate to call it “horror” because it’s just not that horrific.)

I started to get serious about writing after I graduated from college, which is also the time I started collecting all the Bellairs books I could get my hands on. For a time, I tried writing in a similar style to his, but I soon realized that my personal “thing” was humor. I think his influence over my writing has been indirect, but still very strong: I want to write books that make other people as happy as I am when I read his books.

Which of your works would you recommend first to those readers interested in your writing?

At the moment, two of my books are in print: Tommy Frasier and the Planet of the Slugs, which is a beginning chapter book, and Tennis Camp of the Living Dead, which is for middle-grades readers and is probably the closest I have to a Bellairs book. In my mind, it’s a combination of the picture-perfect summer camp where my wife used to work, and all the Universal and Hammer monster movies I’ve ever seen. My other two middle-grades books, Beatnik Rutabagas from Beyond the Stars and The Princess of Neptune, are currently out of print, but should be findable on used-book sites. Both of them are in the process of being reissued in new paperback and e-book editions.

How easy was it for you to get published?

It took a lot of querying, but eventually I found a sympathetic editor, so I think it’s possible for even the weirdest book to find a place somewhere. Back in the olden days (1999, say) querying and waiting was about all you could do. Now, though, with print-on-demand, ebooks, and easy access to freelancers, authors have a lot more options if they want to take matters into their own hands. It’s a good time to be writing books.

The main thing I would tell people is "don’t be afraid to be bad." It’s easy to get paralyzed by perfectionism. If you feel like you can’t write anything good, write some junk. At first, this may seem counterintuitive, but it’s much easier to fix five bad pages than five blank pages.

When do you write?

At night, usually. My kids are starting to stay up later, though, so I may have to switch to the mornings soon.

What’s next in your writing endeavors?

I’m working on another couple of beginning chapter books, one of which is a sequel to Tommy Frasier (my first sequel ever!) and the other seems to be more or less a retelling of The Magnificent Seven, only with unicorns and candy gnomes. After that, I’ve got the first draft of a semi-autobiographical young-adult novel to revise. It’s the way my teenage years would have been, if I’d worked at a Korean restaurant and been pursued by a heavy-metal warlock.

How and when you first became aware of John’s books?

I read The House with a Clock in its Walls when I was a kid. I enjoyed it, and was quite spooked by it, but I never thought to go back to the library and see if there were any more by the same author. I re-discovered him in high school under some unusual circumstances: My family and I were living in Charleston, South Carolina when hurricane Hugo had hit the city. As we were digging out from the problems it had caused, the school where my mother taught received donations of books and supplies from all over the country. The school let the teachers take home whatever donated materials that the school couldn’t use, so my mom brought home paperback copies of The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull and The Eyes of the Killer Robot. I was floored by those books and I’ve been hooked ever since.

What speaks to you about his John’s writing style?

I’ve always been impressed by his ability to create a sense of time and place. My parents were kids during the time in which the Lewis Barnavelt books were set, and in some way it feels like I’m listening to old family stories when I read any of his books. I also admire his ability to create what M.R. James called “a pleasing terror,” that sense that makes a book, despite all the frightening and unsettling events, still a warm and comforting experience to read.

Which book do you think is John’s best? Not best?

If I had to pick one desert-island Bellairs book, it would be The Face in the Frost. I re-read that every year, and there are new things that I pick up every time. I still don’t think I’ve got it all figured out yet. It creates a world that I love to visit. (As a matter of fact, if I had to pick one desert-island book, period, my choice would probably come down to The Face in the Frost or P.G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves.)

The Pedant and the Shuffly was the book I could never quite find a way into. Every once in a while, I go back to it and see if I can get a better appreciation for it, but it eludes me. I’m still not on that book’s wavelength.

Do you have fond memory involving his stories you’d like to share?

Before Magic Mirrors came out, it was hard to lay hands on an affordable copy of St. Fidgeta. I ended up finding a copy in the library of Wright State University in Ohio, and I photocopied the whole thing. I can’t remember how long it took, but I used up a good-sized bag of change. Looking back, I wonder if it would have been cheaper just to have a rare-book dealer find it for me. The photocopied version, held together with black blinder clips, is still on my shelf, though.

Bellairs did his share of author visits – and I think you have, too? How do you spend your time with kids during these visits?

I’ve done events at libraries, bookstores, schools - anywhere anyone will invite me. Usually I like to talk a little bit about my process, about how an idea goes from a few scribbles on a Post-it note to a finished book. After that, I try to get them to ask questions, and then go into detail about whatever the group is most interested in. Finally, I read a part of whatever book I’m currently showing off. I think there are two types of authors when it comes to doing readings: readers and performers. I definitely fall into the “performer” camp. I do voices, I jump around, and sometimes I even edit the text on the fly to make it work better as a spoken-word piece. That’s probably cheating, but I can’t help myself.

On my recent round of events, supporting Tennis Camp of the Living Dead, I was halfway through my first reading when I realized that I was going to have to do accents for a German, a Romanian, and someone who affected 1920s slang, none of which I had rehearsed or could pull off convincingly. Fortunately, the audience was polite enough not to laugh at my efforts. In the future, I’m going to have to consider the accents while I’m writing the drafts.

What do you like to do when you’re not reading or writing? Any other hobbies?

I love photography, especially film photography. I think film has a texture that you don’t get with digital. My favorite cameras to use are the vintage ones. When you ask to take someone’s picture with a shoebox-sized chrome monster from the fifties, they tend to be fascinated rather than skittish. In addition to that, I’ve started to build musical instruments. Up until about six months ago, I didn’t realize that it was possible for a normal person to slap some wood and strings together and come up with something that made a pleasant sound. It’s amazing. And I still have all my fingers, too.

How do you prefer to read: turning the pages of a physical book or running your fingers across the screen of a smudged e-reader?

Physical book, definitely. You can make a connection with the physical object: the design, the typeface, the paper, the memories attached to it. With an e-reader it kind of feels like you’re reading the same book over and over. In addition, you never have to upgrade a physical book, recharge it, or re-buy it when the publisher switches formats.

Having said all that, there are a number of dyslexics in my family, and they all appreciate the ability to manipulate the text size and spacing to make reading more comfortable. (And in some cases, possible at all.) So I suppose there are a few benefits to this e-book business.

In your reading, have you found any other authors who remind you in some ways of John Bellairs?

M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft immediately come to mind - no surprises there. They both have that same blend of the familiar and the unsettling, the “pleasing terror.” Besides those two, it’s pretty hard to come up with other names. When I need a John Bellairs fix, I usually go straight to the source. Outside the realm of fiction, I’ve found that books of real-life ghost stories and folklore tend to give me the same shivers that I get from Bellairs books.

What other author/book(s) would you recommend to a Bellairs fan?

I will restrain myself and not suggest “Quentin Dodd” here. Aside from Edward Gorey, M.R. James, and H.P. Lovecraft, I’d suggest these:
  • The Book of Weird by Barbara Ninde Byfield. An excellent companion to The Face in the Frost.
  • Into the Dream by William Sleator. Interstellar Pig is my favorite of his books, but this one was awfully creepy the first time I read it.
  • Figgs & Phantoms by Ellen Raskin. The difficulties of being an odd kid raised by odd adults.
  • The “John the Balladeer” stories, by Manly Wade Wellman. These are collected in Who Fears the Devil? and other anthologies. Strange things run loose in the Appalachian hills.

Have you ever been somewhere or seen something that reminded you of John or his books?

For me, they seem to be all over the place. Whenever I drive past a nineteenth-century library, a looming stone church at sunset, or a dilapidated shack out in the middle of a cornfield, I always think “this is Bellairs country.”

If you were making a movie based on one of John’s books what’s one thing you would to ensure is included?

I would be sure to include the sense of place. I think the fantastical parts of his books work so well because they’re grounded in a very specific and well-detailed reality. If the stories are translated into a generic here-and-now, I think they lose some of their impact.

Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when...

...you find yourself sounding like Professor Childermass. I have seen my future, and it’s got “ranting old coot” written all over it.

Thank you, Quentin!

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