Monday, June 15, 2015

An Interview with Michael Arnzen

In preparation for the upcoming Nightsun Writer's Conference (July 23-26, 2015), we've asked horror author Michael Arnzen a few questions.  Arnzen will be teaching the sci-fi, fantasy, & horror workshops as part of Nightsun alongside Allison Joseph (poetry), Tim Wendel (creative nonfiction), and Karen McElmurray (fiction).  You can find more information about the Nightsun Writer's Conference here.

As a four-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author, what is it about the horror genre that you find so fascinating?

    I think horror is such a part of my worldview that I don't really think other genres can satisfy me anymore.  I'll read a story or watch a movie and no matter how compelling the conflict might be, I find myself imagining how much worse things could be -- how creepier it could be, how gorier, or how much more psychologically devastating.  Horror is the genre of the "worst case scenario" and that's what I like to read and think about.  As a writer, it pushes me to go "over the top" with my imagination, since the genre really is grounded in surprise -- in "going too far."

  Who is your favorite horror author? Beside horror, what is your favorite genre to read? Why?

    Lately, I'm re-reading Thomas Harris. He's a "thriller" writer, I suppose, but the Hannibal the Cannibal books are frightening and horrifying and just filled with "the evil that men do" in a really artfully-written and deviously-designed way. Aside from horror and thrillers, I'm reading a lot of action/adventure titles of late, too, rediscovering what is fun about James Bond and The Executioner and other forms of pop lit that I sort of skimmed and overlooked when I was growing up. I'm captivated by the simple draw of a well-delivered noir line of dialogue or exposition, and I think the simplicity of character motivation doesn't make the books any simpler.  But as far as "favorite genres" go, the true answer is literary criticism.  I know I will learn something new or be provoked in some way when I read theory, and it often feeds into my fiction in a way that reading other storytellers does not.

  100 Jolts is a book of flash fiction stories. Do you enjoy writing terrifying flash fiction or horror novels more? Why?

    I enjoy flash more.  Why?  Because flash invites and allows more experimentation with form, whereas novels are more about playing with content and character.  I love the puzzling out that goes on with poetry, and flash is more akin to poetry writing:  the language seems to matter more, because there's less of it and it invites scrutiny -- and it also can be more implicit than direct.  The world of the novel can be a  great places to spend time in, but for me the "wanderlust" of writing for me isn't in exploring a character, so much as it is located in an intricate plot and psychodrama.

    What is your most successful revision strategy? Do you revise differently depending on whether you’re working on flash fiction, short stories, or novels?

    No. It's all the same. I try to open the can of worms that is my unconscious brain when I write.  It isn't well composed.  While revision can be dull if it's just copy-editing, I try to approach revision as just as much fun as inventing new things.  It's all a form of discovery for me -- an opportunity to around in what fell out of my fingertips and seeing what diamonds are in the rough, and how I can polish them up.  But I do try to take off my "writer's cap" when I revise, and instead just approach the manuscript as a reader.  That means setting the work aside for a day or two, and maybe even reading something else, then returning to my words and seeing how well they welcome me into a full experience of the text.  I also see if I can add more layers of depth to the text -- such as by foreshadowing an outcome with a subtle symbol or even inventing a new plot twist.  I bring that same impatience I have with non-horror fiction to my own fiction -- as I said before, imagining the "worst case scenarios" implied by any given scene...and trying to make them even worse than I had in the first draft!

    What advice would you share with aspiring writers that you wish you had known when you were just starting out?

    I think one thing I was slow to realize was that writing is not the solitary act we all assume it is.  We do have to spend a lot of time alone with our word processors and notebooks, penning privately.  But writing is foremost an act of communication.  So my advice is to seek out opportunities to share your work with a real audience of readers. This does not mean just posting stuff online in a blog (though you can) -- I think corresponding with a critique partner, attending a workshop or a conference related to your area of the industry can work wonders for you. It can be a wake-up call or a siren's call.  You shouldn't do this stuff if you don't feel "at home" in the industry.  We don't learn how to write from things like classes and workshops, so much as how readers read, but that might be more important when getting started than we realize.
    Otherwise, all the usual advice applies:  write daily, even if it's junk; read more than you already are -- in many genres; recognize that everything you encounter and experience is all grist for the writing mill; and persist at trying to improve.


Four-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Michael Arnzen ( will be leading the workshops on speculative writing (science fiction, fantasy and horror) at Nightsun in July.