Hello, this is L.M. David interviewing Rob Smales, author of Photo Finish, which was included in an anthology book, The Ghost IS The Machine. Before we begin, I would like to say the resident vampire has been absent for a week. I think he has finally moved on. Then again, I said that before only to discover he’d paid a witch to conjure the ghost of Attila the Hun and ordered him to destroy this building … exorcisms are so expensive.
Anyway, let’s welcome Rob to the hot seat.
Q. First, let’s get into some background information about you.
A. Well, I graduated with a degree in English back in 1994. Then a lot of stuff happened. I started a story called “Dating Disaster” which was the first thing I ever wrote with the intention of sharing it with the world. So far I’ve shared it with a very few friends. After that more stuff happened, but I was writing it down. Which brings us to right about now.
Q. And when did you first get the itch to write?
A. I have always been a bit of a storyteller. I was the guy who, when friends saw me, would almost always be asked “So, Rob, how was your day?” That was all it took to set me off and running. Two hours later I would wind down, out of breath and tired, surrounded by friends who had just gotten 120 minutes of entertainment simply from asking me a question and sitting back to watch the answer.
I’m a bit of a night owl, and aside from writing, I also fish. I used to fish a lot. My uncle made the mistake of asking me about a specific fishing story of mine he’d heard of, though he’d never heard the actual story. So I told him. I gave him the entire story, step-by-step, reel specifics, weights, lengths, just everything. And the poor man doesn’t even fish.
He loved it.
It was he who suggested, quite strongly, that I start writing these stories of mine down. I gave it a try — and I was hooked.
Q. Has any of your short stories been taken from a real life experience? And if so, which?
A. Directly from my experience? Well, the one I mentioned above ”The Accidental Bass” was the easiest one to point to. That was taken straight from life …with a little exaggeration for entertainment purposes, of course. It is a fish story after all. And I have a blog that is almost entirely stories about my life and what happens to me on a day-to-day basis. I have a flash fiction titled “Keepsakes” that is based on every little cramped antique or second-hand shop that I or anyone else has ever been in. Well, that and the Weekly World News.
“A Day in the Park”, which will be based on the time my son (he was 4 or five at the time) wandered away and was on his own in an amusement park for about a half-hour. My story will actually have him abducted, but I’ll be trying to capture that helpless feeling when I realized he was gone and there was nothing I could do about it, and build on it. I recently wrote and am now in the process of editing a sci-fi short entitled “You’ve Got Mail”, based on all the customers I have ( I am a mailman in Real Life) asking how they can stop getting junk mail.
Q. What is the funniest thing that has happened while you were writing?
A. Hmm… I’m not sure. I’ve been hounded by a woman who wanted to buy me a book on grammar… I’ve written a story that mentions a mailman and been told “That doesn’t work, mailmen don’t talk like that, they don’t act like that”, which left me scratching my head since I’ve been a mailman for about eighteen years, so I kind of think I’d know…
I’ve written a fairly gory story with some seriously adult language (hey, people talk the way they talk, right?) and then watched as my grandmother picked up the book it was published in and started reading it in my mother’s kitchen. You want to talk about ‘uncomfortable’?…
Q. Most of your work is short stories. Will you ever attempt to write a full length novel?
Yes. Next question.
Okay, that was tempting, but I can’t leave it at that. For my first NaNoWriMo I wrote 76,000 words of a novel, but then set it aside. Now, two years later, I look at it as a great start and a whole bunch of material for a novel, and I even know how to fix it… but now lack the time.
Second NaNoWriMo: finished a 148,000 word first draft novel called “Home Grown”. It needs work and editing. I’ll get to it — I have a hard copy I pull out from time to time. At the moment, however, I’m working on: Seasons of the Dead – a series of collections I’m putting together of seasonal ghost stories, four books, one for each season, each with three stories, one for each month.
The list goes on and one… but you only asked one simple question, so I should really give you one simple answer.
Will I ever attempt a full-length novel? Oh, God yes!
Q. Since we are acquainted through writers.com Prose 3 writing group, I know first-hand you are an excellent writer but have yet I have yet to figure out what genre you favor. What is it and why?
A. Apparently I favor Horror, but I’m not certain why. I have written a Science Fiction series for my son, and the first story I ever wrote as an adult was a romantic comedy. I have ideas for a few YA stories of novella to novel size. Most of the stories I’ve had published so far are Horror, though, I seem to favor the nice, dry, suspenseful ghost story.
Or Vampire story.
Or Zombie story.
Q. How many of your stories have been published? Can you name them?
My published stories thus far:
1.Accidental Bass, the –- The Hunting and Fishing Blog — August, 2010
2.Playmate Wanted –- Dark Moon Digest #5 (quarterly, print), Dark Moon Books — October, 2011
3.Gotcha –- Bewildering Stories (E-zine) — October, 2011
4.Modern Problem -– Frightmares: A Fistful of Horror (anthology, print) -– Dark Moon Books — November, 2011
5.Red Lady’s Story –- Blood and Lullabies #2 (E-zine) — March, 2012
6.It’s Not What You Think –- Dark Eclipse #11, Dark Moon Books — April, 2012
7.Finders Keepers –- Dark Eclipse #12 (E-zine), Dark Moon Books — May, 2012
8.Justice –- Scarlet Whispers (anthology, print), Scarlett River Press — May, 2012
9.Let Them Eat Cake –- (Reader’s Choice winner) Dark Media (E-Zine) June, 2012
10.Photo Finish –- The Ghost Is The Machine* (anthology, print)–- Post Mortem Press — July 2012
11.Tribe — (Reader’s Choice winner) Dark Media (E-zine) — August 2012
12.Good Fences Make Good Neighbors — (Reader’s Choice winner) Dark Media (E-zine) — August 2012
13.All the Little Children — (Readers Choice Winner) Dark Media (E-zine) — August 2012
14.Mutes –- Dangers Untold (anthology), The Horror Society — August, 2012
15.Fishing Buddy –- Checkin’ it Twice (anthology), LDS Publishing — November, 2012
16.Bedtime Story — Rigorous Mortis (anthology, print) — Scarlett River Press — February, 2013 17.Finders Keepers (Reprint) – The Best of Dark Eclipse (Special Issue E-book) — Dark Moon Books — February, 2013
18.Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – Zombies Need Love Too (anthology, print) — Dark Moon Books – February, 2013
I also have a few stories that have been accepted but the projects have not come out yet, as well as a few that have been submitted and I’ve not gotten a rejec— I mean a response yet.
Q. Wow, I’m speechless. And topping everything you recently won an award for writing. Congratulations! What was the name of the story and what award were you given?
A. It was for “Photo Finish”, which I wrote it for Post Mortem Press’s “The Ghost IS The Machine” anthology. Every year the Predators & Editors website runs a Readers Poll with multiple categories. “Ghost IS” won in the Best Anthology 2012 category, and “Photo Finish” won Best Horror Short 2012. You could say I was happy with this story. You would be understating the case, but you could say that.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration from?
A. I have no idea. Different places. One I remember came from hearing a radio commercial. Ideas generally come to me while I’m walking, so I guess as a mailman I have exactly the right job!
Q. How long does it take you to write a short story, start to finish?
A. Oh, that varies greatly and depends on quite a few factors. I’ve written stories that were less than 1,000 words in about a half-hour or so. But then I’ve had 5,000 – 7,000 word stories that took me the better part of a month.
Q. What is your favorite story that you’ve written and what was it about?
A. My favorite story is usually the one I’m working on at the time. That’s why I’m writing it: I love it. Or, sometimes, it’s the one I’ve just gone back to read after leaving a it alone for a while. I remember once bringing a novella manuscript with me on a flight thinking I would edit it on the plane. When my friend picked me up at Denver International, I had to tell her “I was enjoying it too much I forgot to edit the damn thing!”
A personal favorite, though? That’s a tough one. Speaking in a strictly successful sense I’d have to say “Photo Finish” (a haunted camera), simply because it won an award, nominated for another one, and actually made me some money.
Q. What genre has been the hardest for you to write so far?
A. Genre? None. I’ve had things that I had a hard time writing, but I think it was the individual story I had trouble with, not the genre. Usually my difficulties stem from my characters wandering off the loose script I have in mind when I start the project and go in a direction that isn’t helpful at all to me. That’s nothing to do with genre, that’s the people in my head not doing what they’re told. Thank God they don’t have a union! Oh, crap, did I say that out loud? Oh, damn…
Q. In the anthology, The Ghost IS the Machine, your story involved a young boy who bought a camera at a pawn shop that was a bit more than he bargained for. What inspired you to write that one?
A. Okay, a while ago I gave myself a little project to work on in my ‘off-time’ (can you hear the laughter in my voice? ‘Off-time? What’s that?). I’m writing a series of ghost story collections as I mentioned. One I love about ghost stories is they they’re so versatile. I was trying to think of different ways to have a ghost manifest and at the time I had just read Stephen King’s collection “Just After Sunset”, which contains his story “N.” In “N” the protagonist runs across the problem of things in this world that he cannot see with the naked eye, but can see through the viewfinder of his camera. That caused a thought to pop into my head: “What if there was a ghost that would only show up on the film of this one specific camera
Wham. A story was born!
Q. How did you feel when you found out your story would be included in a book with the author Joe Hill, son of the famous author Stephen King?
A. Well, my reaction was mixed. I’m a King fan from way back. My mother is a King fan, so while I was growing up his books were always around the house. Shortly before I saw the submission call from Post Mortem Press for their “The Ghost IS The Machine” anthology I was doing a little … uh… I’ll call it ‘research’. That’s what I call it when I just noodle around on the internet and don’t really accomplish anything. Research.
Remember that, future writers of the World: it’s not “wasting time”, it’s “research”.
So there I was, wasting time on the internet, and decided to see if there was anything of King’s I’d not read. I looked his older stuff and I found “Four Past Midnight”. One story I did not remember reading was “The Sun Dog”.
Rough plot description of “The Sun Dog”: A fifteen year-old boy gets a Polaroid Sun camera, but no matter what he takes a picture of all he gets is a photo of a dog. A dog that is getting closer with every shot.
Rough plot description of “Photo Finish”: A fourteen year-old boy gets a second hand Polaroid One-Step camera, but no matter what he takes a picture of there is a man somewhere in the scene. A man who is getting closer with every shot.
Coincidence? God, I hoped so. I then saw the submission call from Post Mortem Press, asking for stories about haunted machines and things. Perfect, I thought. I have the story for this in mind, and I’ve been meaning to write it so I can read that King story, so…
Then I saw Joe Hill would a contributing authors. I panicked. What if I had unconsciously ripped off his dad, Stephen King? He’d know, right? It wasn’t until after I’d sent it off that someone pointed something out to me. So Joe Hill’s going to be in that book? they said. That’s his kid in that book. You don’t think the book’s not going to wind up on Stephen King’s shelf?
That’s awesome, I thought. I might wind up in a book on Stephen King’s shelf!
Q. Are there any more projects like the Ghost IS the Machine in your future?
A. God I hope so. I’d had my eye on Post Mortem Press for a while before I saw their submission call, and I like the stable of writers they’ve already handled. They seemed, from the outside, to be a quality organization.
Q. What advice do you have for other writers still struggling to get their work out into the publishing world?
A. Write. Write a lot. If you are striving for publication pay attention to any rejection letters you get, and don’t take them to heart. Treat each one as a critique and see what you can learn from them. Taking writing courses is great, and they can be a huge help, just as critique circles and writing groups can, but sometimes the focus is a little different, especially if you’re submitting for someone else’s project. I can only speak to the publishing of short stories (so far) but I can tell you that not only are they looking for good, compelling stories told in an engaging way, and not only are they looking for good, clean, skillful writing, but they are looking for all those things in the most concise form possible.
Did I mention they should write a lot?
L.M. David: Well that concludes this interview. Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me.
Rob Smales spends quite a bit of time coaxing words into a line; any words in that line that don’t work well with the others are taken out and shot as examples to the rest. In 2012 he managed to both win the Predators &Editors award for Best Short Horror Story and find himself nominated for a Pushcart Prize, making him one of the best new writers you’ve never heard of.
The anthology is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.com
Blurb: Excerpt from “Photo Finish“, in the “The Ghost IS The Machine Anthology” from Post Mortem Press.
They were at the playground on the edge of their neighborhood waiting for a picture to develop, when Frank asked, “Who’s that?”
Billy looked from the developing square in his hand to the picture Frank held: Frank spinning on the merry-go-round. The old film had turned the bright red disk of the merry-go-round a dark, reddish-brown that reminded Billy of dried blood. Frank was moving too fast for the camera as he went by, a streaky, Frank-shaped blur trailing color behind it like the tail of a comet. He was leaning out toward the camera, and his face had lost almost all definition, though you could see the twin dark spots of his eyes, holes in his head bleeding darkness back into the comet’s tail. Beneath those holes was a larger one, dark and wide with white teeth streaking into the blur.
Frank had been laughing on merry-go-round, but in the distorted photo, it looked like a long, terrible scream made by something no longer human, the thing’s waving arm transformed into a hand thrust forth in supplication. It gave Billy a chill despite the end-of-summer warmth.
But Frank wasn’t pointing to the hellish image of himself. His fingernail was tapping a point in the image above and behind him, just beyond the far side of the playground.
There, in the expanse of grass between the street and the wood-chip-covered playground proper, small in the distance, was the figure of a man. Distinctly human-shaped but blurred, the figure strode toward them, one arm extended. His clothing was dark, and he either wore a hat or had dark hair worn loose and wild; it was hard to tell with the distance and distortion. His skin had taken on the sepia tone of the background sky, with no visible features to his face, though his posture gave him a sense of urgency.
Billy looked around at the playground and surrounding park and shrugged. He saw no one, had seen no one. They had arrived at the park at dinnertime and had had the place to themselves.
“I dunno,” Billy said. “Maybe he just went by quick and we missed him.”
Billy looked at his friend and saw that while he was examining the photo in Frank’s hand, Frank was pointing at the one Billy held, eyes round. He held up the picture and saw it had finished developing. In it, Billy hung upside down from the horizontal ladder, holding on to one of the rungs with crooked knees, arms flapping toward the ground, his t-shirt riding up to expose his belly button. Past upside-down Billy and his upside-down smile was the man again.
Closer this time, he was about to step onto the wood chips of the playground, just past the spring-mounted Three Little Pigs that the younger kids rode like hobby horses. With more clarity than in the previous photo, Billy could make out the man’s long dark overcoat billowing behind him as he moved. He was hatless, his medium-length hair unkempt. Billy looked at Frank, who was already staring at him.
“So much for ‘just went by quick,’” Frank said, then looked around the playground again. “I took that picture a couple of minutes after you took this one of me. Dude, I was looking. I didn’t see anyone.”