“The Man in Christopher’s Closet,” by W.R. Parrish, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 1,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive feature on Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, Parrish shares his inspiration for and thoughts on what makes for good horror. You can read “The Man in Christopher’s Closet” here.
Tell us about yourself.
I was a child of the 80s, born in Lancaster, Ohio, and was raised by my mother, an art teacher and my father, a police officer. Despite a highly religious upbringing in his latter childhood years, my mother and I would often take in horror flicks at the local drive-in theater. This eclectic mix is now rooted in both my personality and writing. I self-published my first novel last year, One Day October along with a short story The Family Buried. For more information visit www.wrparrish.com.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing horror?
Horror is limitless. Anything and everything is fair game. But that’s a double-edged sword. Horror is one of the easiest genres to illicit a reaction, though it’s the most difficult to illicit a reaction well. In a time when vampires and werewolves have become teenage love-interests (and no, I’m not suggesting either are horror), making the genre respectable or legitimate again is a bit of an uphill struggle.
Describe your writing process for “The Man in Christopher’s Closet.”
I had a dream about a boy who kept seeing something in his closet. The details were vague – a half-opened door, pale light, the house settling – but I knew whatever was inside was something he was used to, but didn’t want to see. It took an afternoon of mulling, but pieces came together easily, and the story fell out soon after. A day from start to finish, which is rare for me.
How long have you been writing? How did you start?
In fifth grade, I won our school’s Young Author’s Competition with a sci-fi tale about a hero named Granite who was “tough as rocks”. That’s the earliest story I remember. I tried my hand at mystery, writing stories about a group of kids who solve neighborhood myths in the style of Scooby Doo and Encyclopedia Brown, and graduated from there trying to mirror John Bellairs and his relationship between Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass. I started with imitation, and found what interested me inside thee, eventually being brave enough to imagine my own Scooby or Childermass.
Why do you write?
I hold cards pretty close to my chest, and writing is the easiest way for me to lay everything on the table. For someone who allows a lot of things to go by unsaid, I find I can express a concern or an uncertainty (or a joy or an appreciation) through an understudy better than I can from my own mouth. I’m not sure why that is. Understanding how to mold the strange and make it real and normal and more tangible is a wonderfully therapeutic process.
Who or what has inspired you as a writer?
H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker are two of my largest influences, and I think they target what interests me most about how malleable horror can be as a genre. Lovecraft, too, holds cards close to his chest, never really telling the reader what they’re seeing, only giving them breadcrumbs to conjure these fantastical experiences for themselves (a smell, a hand, a baying hound), and that was a huge lesson for me. Horror today seems to be all about a quick jump or a fist full of gore to spook the audience, not about the subtle unexplained, which is more unnerving than either of those could ever be. There, Lovecraft is a master. With Barker, he taught me that horror need not be traditional. What use are zombies when creatures like Weaveworld‘s Immaculata exist, or the eternal Jacob Steep from Sacrament? Being told a genre is not bound by four simple walls was one of the best lessons of all.
Which genres do you write in? Is horror (short or long) your primary genre?
Short Horror is what I primarily focus on, and what my first publication was. The novel I just finished, though, is YA Fantasy (a verse novel) which I’m now looking for a home for. My third, which I’m working on now, is a mix of genres – some horror, some fantasy, some fiction – and it goes from there. But horror is, and likely always will be home. At the very least, some unsettling pieces will find their way into the frame of whatever genre I’m in.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I work more in snapshots than a typical outline. I’ll see pictures I’d like to put on paper (again: a half-opened door, pale light, the house settling) and those images fall somewhere along the story’s path. I almost always start writing without knowing precisely where I’m heading, only knowing that I’ll use those pictures as signposts to get me to the end. In the short story I published The Family Buried, the inspiration began with me walking down my driveway and hearing flies I couldn’t see in the dimming summer light. The picture stayed, and as I took more, the pieces of the outline fell into place. When I actually sit down to write, I have to force myself to get everything down and not fuss with the details until later. I have a terrible habit of trying to manicure each paragraph as I’m going, which can lead to me cycling endlessly on a hamster wheel of revisions and never-dones. So these days, I write it all out and take a pen to the end result.
How would you describe your writing style?
Lyrical with a heavy emphasis on poetic imagery. I try and paint small details rather than focusing on the larger pieces, allowing the reader to create the world for themselves using what I’ve given them.
What are the keys to a successful horror? How does the short story format affect these keys?
Keys will be different for everyone. What bothers me doesn’t bother my wife, doesn’t bother my friends, etc. What makes successful horror, is knowing how to recognize the universal. For me, I tend to focus on both the inevitable and the uncertainty that can arise in our day-to-day. In my story Threes from One Day October, the reader discovers in the first few pages how the story ends, and sits by helpless on the sidelines as it does. The short story format is perfect for horror because it doesn’t allow the reader a chance to become too comfortable. One minute you’re meeting someone, and then next you realize they’re a swamp creature being hunted by a maniac. And then it’s over.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Everywhere. On walks. Hearing a small bit of conversation in a restaurant. Dreams. Buzzards on the roof of our barn. Things that frighten can be surprisingly mundane, and it takes only a quick observation to catch.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
My style. I try and be transportive with my imagery rather than wholly literal. Vague isn’t always a terrible thing, and I find using a color or a single word can often have a larger impact than hand-holding ever could. All I do is start with that word and radiate from there, using it to convey the place or the emotion or the danger right around the corner. Everything else falls into place from there.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
Knowing when to stop. Knowing when I’m wrong and being willing to listen to the people I have around me who know better. I will write and rewrite until I come full-circle and start the process over again, and it takes me forcing myself to put something aside for a week or a month before looking at it fresh. Otherwise, nothing gets done. I’m a perfectionist no where else in my life but when I’m looking at a page, and I’ve had to teach myself that it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be right. And secondly: remaining passionate. It’s one thing to be told that you’ll send out hundreds of manuscripts to agents and have all of them returned with a polite “no”, but it’s another thing to do so in actuality and combat that “no” with the desire to keep writing. I’m not sure if I’ve strengthened myself against that yet – I doubt anyone ever does, really – but at the very least, stubbornness can be a virtue. Someday, the “yes” will come.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
From one of my professors, Dr. Bailey: “Conversations are never straight lines.” Just listen to two (or three or four) people talking with one another. Spend a day doing that and your dialogue will improve ten-fold.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
Finishing my first novel. I floated in limbo for the longest time, always having ideas but never seeing them fully through. Self-doubt, I guess. But finishing that, actually seeing something which seemed like a great hill through: that opened the floodgates. People can tell you what you want to (or don’t want to) hear all the time, but for me, it took knowing that writing was not this insurmountable thing. Now, I can’t seem to stop.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
To not limit myself. To be open. To earn my livelihood doing what I love. I suspect that’s what most writers want.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Write for yourself. Others will find you.