What are some of your favorite mystery/horror stories?
Oh, there’s a few. Stephen King’s THE SHINING is simply brilliant. Danielewski’s HOUSE OF LEAVES was an amazing accomplishment in its structure, and how that physical structure heightened the book’s tone of isolation and confusion. I’m a big fan of the early Thomas Harris books, RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
And while it’s not horror, I thought CLOUD ATLAS was one of the best books I’ve ever come across. As a reader, it drew me into an amazingly complex tale, and as a writer, I was in complete awe. What inspired you to pen your first novel?
The desire had been there for a while, but it was always a “maybe one day” thing. I worked in public relations for a number of years in New York City, which ended up being good training for promoting myself now. But, eventually the desk job stopped being enough. A few years ago, life lined up to allow me to say, “You’ve got two years. See what you can do.” It’s been four, and I like the trajectory I’m on.
Your latest book TORRANCE is not your typical “doomsday” book. Can you tell us a little more about the story?
The story for TORRANCE had been brewing for a few years. It’s the first book in a sci-fi series, SCARS OF TOMORROW, which was certainly a departure for me. And, you’re right, it isn’t the typical doomsday book. In TORRANCE, the doomsday, in many ways, has already occurred but the world just doesn’t know it yet. I took some of today’s popular conspiracy theories, assumed them to be true, and created a world one-hundred-fifty years in the future.
I’d say there’s more social commentary in this series than in my horror series, as it explores the effects of consumerism and corporatism. Both of which have experienced large gains in dominance over the last fifty to seventy-five years. The quick pitch is that in the year 2163, five mega-corporations run the world, which I modeled on the five mafia families of New York City. There are a few people, which the government has labeled “terrorists”, who resist the dominance of the Global Alliance.
But most of the population is content living within a haze of consumerism and enjoy lives of easy entertainment. However, two individuals discover a fatal flaw in a technology hailed by the government as essential. . .and mandatory. TORRANCE is really the prologue in a saga covering a few turbulent years in the world’s future. There’s a large cast of characters and several subplots that are interconnected and often times at odds. There’s a conspiracy that is 2,000 years old. And there’s some very believable future technology in the series. That wasn’t very quick, was it?
How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
To be honest, when I first started out, I was worried I was doing it wrong. So many authors talk about outlining each chapter, and that’s just not something I can do. I have the “What If?” in mind—What if a pandemic broke out while a guy was in a classroom teaching a high school history class; What if five corporations ruled in the new world order?—and one or two character ideas.
After that, I let it roll on its own. There are usually a few plot elements I aim towards. However, there’s been times that when I got to that point in the story, the character had developed in such a way that those plot ideas became antithetical to the character’s nature. The only formula I set is not to force my characters. It sounds bizarre, but they reveal themselves to me as I write and they help inform the direction of the story.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
For me, it’s the storytelling, the blending. Anyone can learn the mechanics. I relate it to playing the guitar. You can learn the chords and finger positions, you can increase flexibility and dexterity, but if you can’t string the notes together to create a tune, then you’re just making noise. You can have strong characters, an interesting plot, rich settings, but if you don’t blend them together well, than you don’t have a story.
What are the ingredients of a blockbuster story?
As I said, it’s characters, and setting, and plot. But more than that, it’s finding something original. Most of the feedback I received for the books in THE PANDEMIC SEQUENCE cited the readers’ affinity for characters that weren’t really equipped for a zombie outbreak. For most of the first book, THE TILIAN VIRUS, it’s a high school teacher and his students.
Their best resource is a park ranger, and even he comes into the story well after the first months/years of survival. Prior to writing the series, I’d only read one zombie apocalypse book (WORLD WARD Z), so I was unaware of the typical ex-solider/sheriff/mercenary most books in the genre focus on. And I think that that ignorance worked to my advantage, and allowed me to create a story that was unique. I mentioned two books earlier, HOUSE OF LEAVES and CLOUD ATLAS, that are not only examples of great writing, but the concepts, both in structure and plot, are unique. It’s books like those that build a cult following and become classics.
How would you increase literacy?
Expand the offerings and choices in schools. Certainly, there are classics that need exploring, but I think schools tend to define “classic” very narrowly. Thankfully, I had parents who are avid readers and encouraged me to explore different genres when I was young. If not for them, I would have been in college before I learned that there were fantasy classics, and science fiction classics, and horror classics outside of Stoker and Shelley. My primary and high school never introduced me to those worlds.
When I hear kids say they don’t like reading, I know what they mean is that they don’t like the books/genres they’ve read. Not everyone lives and breathes THE SCARLET LETTER (which I enjoyed). Some of us need THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and DUNE. What story do you enjoy reading over and over again? I could read “A Rose for Emily” every day and Faulkner’s descriptions would still blow me away. The same for Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As for novels, I’ve read Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME SERIES more than a dozen times over the years. Whenever the next volume in the series came out, I’d start the whole thing over again. I also find myself going back to King’s THE STAND every few years.
Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
I’ll skip the most common two: write every day and read every day. I’d add: be observant. There are stories waiting to be told all around us. The biggest problem I notice is that many people have pulled back from experiencing the world firsthand.
When they travel, the spend most of their time viewing the world through a camera. When they interact, it’s through a mobile phone and text. If we keep our focus too narrowed, we risk missing all the excitement on the periphery. What ice cream flavor would you invent?
Oh, man, I’d create a non-dairy chocolate chip cookie dough that actually tastes good.
Any exciting news/hints about your upcoming projects?
This is probably the busiest I’ve been as a writer. I have the first three books in SCARS OF TOMORROW coming out in 2014, so there’s promotion for them to focus on. I’m finishing up a fourth entry in THE PANDEMIC SEQUENCE series. And I am working on a stand-alone supernatural thriller cum police procedural. The stand-alone is exciting for me as thus far I have only done series work.
I’ve been consulting with a detective from Maine State Police’s Major Crimes Unit who has been guiding me through murder investigations. If the readers respond well, I have plans to follow the fictional detective through other cases. A sort of Harry Bosch of the supernatural/occult. About Tom Calen Tom Calen is the author of the bestselling horror series, The Pandemic Sequence, as well as the science-fiction series, Scars of Tomorrow.
His books The Tilian Virus and The Tilian Effect both reached #1 on Amazon’s Bestselling Science-Fiction Series list, and both were the #1 Hot New Release in horror and science-fiction. A New York City native, Tom holds a degree in English and spent several years toiling in the world of business before abandoning all reason and deciding to write full-time.
He finds the worlds in his novels far less frightening than the corporate world. From Castle Rock to Arakis, Middle Earth to Westeros, Tom eagerly devours as many science-fiction, fantasy, and horror novels as time allows.
He credits George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Stephen King as the major influences on his style. Tom is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association, and International Thriller Writers, Inc. He is currently living in Nicaragua, where he is working on his next projects. For more, visit www.TomCalen.com
You can contact him at: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org FB: www.facebook.com/tomcalen Twitter: @tomcalen