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WesternSFA
A Chat with F. Paul Wilson
on July 11, 2016
by Catherine Book
F. Paul Wilson is probably most well-known for his “Repairman Jack” novels; but I was captivated by his latest new novel “Panacea”.  And so I was very interested in possibly interviewing him during his signing tour when he stopped by the Poisoned Pen bookstore.

“Panacea” is his 55th book so I guess I’ve been missing out on a lot.  I wanted to know right away if this new book was intended to be a series as the ending does seem allow for that.  Yes, he answered, although it wasn’t intended that way when he initially finished it.  But his publisher saw the possibilities and asked him to rewrite the ending.  He didn’t mind too much as he really likes the two characters and was happy to write another – which is already done and sent in to the publisher!  The title is “The God Gene” and it will, hopefully, be out in the summer of 2017.  I asked him how long a series he thought he might have with this.  He has the third story in his head but nothing long-term.  The series does have a lot of possibility with high concept stories.  All he knows for sure is that he doesn’t intend to write another 22 books in one series.

Speaking of which:  Repairman Jack has been put out to pasture.  He finished the story by making sure the character couldn’t come back.  There’s room, of course, for short stories set within the story arc, so you never know… The first book came out in 1984. I asked him if he knew he had a series with that first one.  He said he knew it would be a good series character but he didn’t really want to write a series; the first book was written as a standalone.  It would be 14 years before he wrote a second book; but it did so well that he wrote a third.  And by that time, he was caught up in the character and happily continued – for 22 books plus short stories.

Some of his fans have pestered him to write books about some of the secondary characters from the Repairman Jack stories.  But that’s not going to happen.  Secondary characters such as the gunrunner, Abe Grossman, or the bartender, Julio, are there to leaven the suspense with banter and humor.  And although they are endearing to the fans, there isn’t enough of them to carry a whole book.  They have their purpose and we should just love them for that.

Where did all this begin for Paul?  Second grade.  He says he’s always been a storyteller; he doesn’t really consider himself as a writer so much as a storyteller.  He sees that although style isn’t his strong-point, he is very strong on narrative.  He likes to write fast as he has, he told me, a short attention-span.  He doesn’t like to spend a lot of time on a scene.  And since he has so many stories in his head, he just can’t waste time.

What were his influences?  He enjoyed reading horror but there was a real dearth of such stories in the ‘50s and ‘60s when he started reading.  He found an H.P. Lovecraft and everything changed.  No chain rattling type of horror here.  This was a concept that really shook up his young Catholic teenage mind – gone was the typical good vs. evil, the comfortable dualism.  Instead, here was a materialistic view of the universe and horror.  There was no easy balance; only forces out there that didn’t really care about us.  He wasn’t terribly fond of Lovecraft’s prose or his gods with the tongue-twisting names but the concept felt much more realistic to him and changed his whole perspective.  This influence stayed with him and goes through all his fiction:  the idea that there are forces out there of which we’re unaware and they’re pulling the strings…  Not his personal belief, of course, but great fun to use in his fiction.

He started out writing short stories in the early 1970s but didn’t publish a novel until “Healer” in 1976.  He talks about it during writers’ conferences where he tends to garner some hateful responses.  You see, he did what’s called an “over the transom submission” with his novelette “Pard” when he submitted a full treatment direct to a publisher – without an agent – and they bought it!  Other writers hate it when that happens.  I noticed that his output was meager through the early 1980s but 1987 was a banner year.  Yes, he agreed; when he hit forty, he was really cranking them out.  I asked him when he quit his day job.  He didn’t, he told me.  He is a family physician but in 1994 he finally cut back to just two days a week because he was making much more money as a writer.  Rather astonishing that he continued as a physician so many years considering the amount of work he was producing those years – yes, he laughed, that’s his OCD.  At that time he was writing a daily 1-minute script for the SciFi channel, scripting videogames and writing a novel.  He was getting fried and something had to give. 

I was interested in the number of collaborations he’s done over the years.  What was the impetus?  He related that he and Matthew Castello wrote together for the SciFi channel back in 1992-93 and they made a huge sale to Time Warner Interactive Media and Warner Books.  It was a concept of a novel and game scripts tied together.  But before it came together, Time Warner decided to stop the videogame project.  But they still had a contract with Warner Books who wanted them to go ahead with the two novels.  Sarah Pinborough wrote the Dog-Faced Gods series which impressed him.  One of the characters in her book inspired him so he contacted her to see if she’d like to do it together.  He and Steven Spruill used to carpool to a convention in Rhode Island and spent the five hours batting book ideas back and forth until they finally finished a book.  He and Tom Monteleone are doing a middle-grade trilogy together.  With a 30-year friendship, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.  He once thought it ought to be half the work but that’s not how it works out.  He laughed when he describes himself as being so anal that he has to have the last look and polish of each book.  So, no…not half the work after all.

How does he structure his work?  Is he an outliner?  He related that he used to be an obsessive outliner.  When he outlined “Implant,” he detailed so much that it took a lot of ‘juice’ out of the writing experience.  He decided he’ll never do that again; his outlines are much sketchier now.  They are there to tell him that he can end the book on the note he wants.  He sees the novel’s end as a catharsis.  The story should build and build and then blast out the ending.  He wants his reader to feel satisfied at the end.

Does he need a particular environment that feels conducive to his writing?  He can write pretty much anywhere but he really likes writing on a plane – no distractions of phone or internet. He writes 5 days a week (still works as a doctor two days a week), and he tries for 2000 words a day while in draft.  He refers to it as a “vomit draft”.  It’s a spewing-out without editing, don’t look back, fix stuff later but don’t lose momentum. 

What does he think is most important to him: setting, plot or characters?  He mused on this for a while and then responded with plot.  No…the story.  These are two different things.  The story is what actually happens, he explained, and the plot is how you tell it.  He starts with very sketchy characters, very little detail.  He doesn’t like to give them any opportunity to make decisions.  He feels that when an author gets too invested in a character, then they paint themselves into a corner when they need the character to do something. They can’t because the action doesn’t fit with the character development.  He wants his characters to do exactly what he needs them to do.  That means that when he goes back to edit, he can change the characters to fit the story.  The characters are there to service the story, he explained, and to make the reader care.

He’s currently working on the third Nocturnia book, “The Silent Ones” of his middle-grade series.  It doesn’t have a publication date as it is being self-published with Tom Monteleone.  It’s something he really wants to finish and get out to the readers.  And with all the ideas percolating, it certainly won’t be the last.

He was incredibly generous with his time, for which I am very grateful.  I think we see that in his writing, as well.  As he said, at one point, he likes to think that his readers are part of the whole experience in developing the story.

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