This incarnation of our bookish conversations has been due for a couple of weeks now, and I apologize for how long it has taken. Personal and family matters took priority, but now everything has settled and I can get back to my first love of books and the ones who write them.
This bookish conversation is a real treat for me, because I am a big fan of this guy. Clay McLeod Chapman is a writer born and raised in Richmond, Virginia―he’s another Virginia boy like me, and even though he currently lives in NYC he still acknowledges his roots in his recent horror novel The Remaking. His newest terror-filled release due shortly is Whisper Down the Lane, but so you won’t think he’s a one trick pony Clay is also a writer for the stage and screen, with The Pumpkin Pie Show reinvigorating dramatic storytelling. He’s also written comics for Marvel, and I personally remember and love the short story collection from years ago, entitled rest area. There are of course many other works on the list; all I can tell you is to check them out, read and relish them.
I wanted to have a brief chat with Clay, and introduce him to the readers of the blog. I know that many of you will want to know more about him.
Greetings Clay, would you like to add anything to the introduction I’ve just listed above?
First off—I just want to say thanks for helping spread the word with The Remaking. It was a labor of love, so any time I get to chat with someone who enjoyed reading it, I feel very blessed. I appreciate it. Your intro gives me waaaay too much credit, but I’ll take it!
I wanted to talk briefly about the wide variety of works you’ve written. You’ve done both traditional and YA fiction, work for the stage and screen, and comics. What made you want to cast such a wide net, creatively speaking?
Part of it is born out of financial necessity, part of it is dumb luck… I say yes to just about any creative opportunity that comes my way. Writing for comics, for YA fiction, for film and beyond, most of those opportunities came from someone being exposed to the work that I wrote for myself, either my storytelling performances or the short stories in rest area, and them saying: “Hey. I like your stuff. Have you ever thought about writing for ____?” And my automatic answer has always been, “Yes!” I learn as I go. I continue to fail, sometimes miserably, but I get to seek out my voice in mediums I might not have had an opportunity to explore otherwise. Ultimately, though, speaking for myself, I feel like I have a lot of stories I want to tell and I try to let the story dictate which medium it wants to be told in… Some stories need to be comics. Others need to be for the screen. Leaning into the given medium and letting its specific attributes guide the story is a gift.
Your recent work has centered on horror. Between The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane you’ve gone into dark supernatural waters, and even with comics you broke down such terror-inducing characters as Carnage. Even your first book rest area went into strange (though very very good) territory in terms of psychological suspense. Besides everyone’s favorite author Stephen King, what was it that pushed you to delve into such outlandish territory?
I don’t think I’ve written much that would be found outside the genre. It’s always been horror. The early stuff I was writing was so Poe-focused. I was obsessed with Poe. And Flannery O’Connor. My short stories were just ugly Poe-O’Connor love children. The stories in rest area are horror, even if the packaging might suggest otherwise. Offbeat horror? Off kilter horror? There are no ‘monsters’ inside the collection, no vampires or werewolves, but it’s teaming with people who do monstrous things. Terrible things. That, to me, is horror. Straight up horror. Both rest area and my first novel miss corpus were horror-themed works that were packaged as… literary fiction, I guess? They just kinda withered away on the bookshelf. So with The Remaking and Whisper Down the Lane, there’s been more of a direct attempt to say, “No, hey, this really is horror. This is spooky stuff with ghosts and devils and all that.” But, to be honest, one of the things that I love about horror is that it is such a wide, expansive genre. Supernatural horror. Psychological horror. Body horror. So much horror! And it all falls under one big umbrella… The terrain is vast, full of niches. A little something for everyone. Hopefully, I’ll never have to settle into one subgenre and can tell the stories that I want to tell… and hopefully, fingers crossed, there’s at least a few people out there who’ll be frightened by it.
You’ve gone on record describing the real world folktales that inspired The Remaking. I believe the original legend came from somewhere in Kentucky right? Why move the story to Virginia?
I wanted to put a bit of a layer of fiction over the true event, in order to prevent too much comparison between what supposedly happened in Kentucky and the story I wanted to tell. Plus Virginia is the world I know, so it makes me feel at home to root my story there.
You were obviously inspired by the horror movies of the Seventies and Eighties. What are some of your favorite films from that period?
Well, truth told, the movie “Don’t Tread On Jessica’s Grave” mentioned in The Remaking is a direct homage to one of my absolute favorite films of the era… Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Written and directed by John D. Hancock, starring the breathtaking Zohra Lampert, it is the inspiration for so much of The Remaking. My book is basically just fan fic for that film. All the way down to the writing style of the book itself. I wanted to write in the cadence of the movie. The breaths and sighs of it, the cyclical nature of the film’s voiceover, the dizzying cadence… it casts a spell over you. I truly, truly love that movie.
You’ve also gone on record saying you felt conflicted about being a man telling a story that belonged to women. If you don’t mind, what went through your head as you explored this conflict? Is there something in that conflict that you want to share with the next generation of writers?
The Remaking has appropriation on its mind. A mother and daughter are burnt at the stake because they are believed to be witches. Their story becomes infamous. It’s shared around the campfire. Someone turns their story into a movie… and then that movie gets remade. Their story is taken away from them, time and time again, usually at the hands of men, ‘auteurs’ with their own creative agendas. It wasn’t lost on me that I was writing a novel about all this and what right did I have to do so. It wasn’t so much conflicted as it was acknowledging my own complicity. I’m no better and I shouldn’t be let off the hook. That added layer, while not being textual, is still a part of the book. The second you see “written by Clay McLeod Chapman,” you know that I’m just as culpable.
Before I go into this next question I want to say that I loved The Remaking. In my opinion the book was a near masterpiece. It was brilliantly written, and all but the last two pages were perfect. That being said, I felt that the last two pages, where the mother and daughter who birthed the legend get to have their final say, felt forced and a little too quick. If you could go back and do things over again, what do you think that Ella and Jessica would have to say about their story?
Sorry to hear you feel that way! But I can’t really answer this question… I don’t want to go back and change the ending. To each their own, right?
We’ve talked quite a lot about The Remaking, but you have another book due out soon. Would you like to talk about that for a bit?
Whisper Down the Lane hits shelves on April 6th. It riffs of the satanic panic era of the 80s, as well as the works of Ira Levin and others. Imagine telling a white lie about your kindergarten teacher. Now imagine that lie taking on a life of its own, consuming the lives of everyone around you… your friends and family, your classmates and teachers. But then imagine it going even further, spreading across the nation, riding a tide of paranoia that’s been simmering just below the surface of our country’s skin. Imagine that lie destroying people’s lives… and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Now imagine you’re no longer a child. You’ve grown up and moved on with your life. Nobody remembers who you are and the things you said as a kid… until one day, that lie suddenly comes back to haunt you. That lie becomes true… only it’s not about your teacher anymore. It’s about you. Someone out there knows exactly who you are and what you said as a kid and they want you to pay. That’s what Whisper Down the Lane is about.
What else is in the works for you? Any other horror novels or short stories that we can expect from you?
I’m embarking upon my next novel, which hopefully I’ll be able to talk about soon… It’s been an awful year across the board, but it’s certainly been a bountiful time to write. Whole lotta dread in the air. We’ll see if anything claws its way out of quarantine…
One more question before we head out: Do I get brownie points for mentioning your early work? (He asks in jest, though I do dig your stuff.)
100%… rest area has no digital footprint. It’s fading to dust by the day. It simply doesn’t exist. You’re helping keep it alive, which honestly means the world to me. Thank you.
Thanks for talking with me Clay.
Thank you! Such a pleasure… Stay safe out there.