Terrie Leigh Relf: What types and forms of writing do you focus on?
Alan M. Clark: Lately, I’ve been writing historical fiction—mostly novels—about dreadful events, criminals, and their victims. I am trying to brand it as Historical Terror: Horror that Happened. In fiction, I have written primarily in the genres of fantasy and horror. In nonfiction, I’ve written for educational books about art and illustration, and I keep a blog where I write articles that help to reveal my creative process and thereby promote my artwork and writing.
TLR: What is your area(s) of subject matter expertise? How did you discover this niche, and what intrigues you about it?
AMC: In the 1980s, I worked at a history museum in Nashville, Tennessee. Doing the work of a museum guide, mostly telling visitors about the local history and answering endless questions, I was put in a position of having to think about how people of a bygone time had lived, how they found happiness, how they fought against adversity, and how they felt about their lives. The experience increased my interest in history. I realized that no matter the time period, human beings were emotionally much the same, and I began to consider various historical settings for the stories I wrote. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post I wrote titled “Relating to Psyches Long Dead”:
“How we respond to the world has a lot to do with personality, but our time and circumstances have some influence on who we are as well. In developing characters within a historical setting, its important to know something of how people within the chosen environment were affected by events of their time. Also important is considering how characters’ knowledge of their environment’s history prior to their respective births might effect their thinking. That seems like a lot, and perhaps it is. The good news is that we’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, and we’re used to interpreting others moods within the context of their experiences. Dealing with emotion in historical fiction is no different. We just have to know the context.”
TLR: How do you balance your creative and work time?
AMC: At this point in the interview, I’ll begin to answer while wearing two hats, since I am both an author and illustrator. I’ve been a self-supporting freelance illustrator for 31 years, a freelance writer for 21 years. I work any time that I find available, days, nights, weekends. I work at home, and am able to motivate myself to always meet deadlines. I rarely procrastinate because it doesn’t feel good, and because it’s not good for business or getting a good night’s sleep. When a deadline is short, sometimes I ask my wife, Melody, to take up the slack in other aspects of our lives, like with the cooking, since I do most of that.
TLR: What tips do you have for other creative individuals?
AMC: The world is large and already filled with brilliant creative individuals when we begin our creative efforts. To be recognized for our own work, we must do what we can to raise the perceived value of the art we produce. What that involves varies for all of us, but at the heart of it is making every effort to expose our work to an increasingly wide audience. While perception of artwork belongs to the individual, we all enjoy sharing our experiences. We like to know that others have responded in a similar way and test that by expressing something about our experience that might be special, something worth relating to others. With all that communication between individuals, perception of any given piece of art is influenced by community. The perceived value of a community determines the level of excitement people have over a particular work or an artist. In order to encourage the sharing, audience must be invited in and given room to contribute to the implicit conversation of a piece of art; our creations must offer them a playground for the imagination, one that they will want to return to often, either in memory or through exploring additional pieces of our work.
Along with getting our creations out into the world for people to see, we must create work that is so distinctly different from that of other creative individuals that we are not replaceable.
TLR: What are your thoughts on the creative process in general and your creative process in particular?
AMC: My creative process places a premium on audience participation in the works I create. I am initiating conversations with audience. Whether it is visual art or writing, I want to compel audiences to contribute to the conversation through their experience of the artwork itself. I want to invite them in and give them room to make their contribution. In visual art, as an illustrator, I create images that suggest narrative by setting up apparent relationships between figures (in writing this would be characters), between figures and objects or environments. I make such relationships highly suggestive, but then don’t pin down the narrative too tightly, leaving the image open to interpretation. The audience gets to fill in the rest. The result is sort of “show don’t tell” in visual art.
As with the visual art, I want my writing to be largely a subjective experience for my audience. I am drawn to stories that have moral ambiguity because they put readers in a position of having to consider their own experience in comparison to that of a POV character. Being allowed to draw their own conclusions, I believe the reading has a more life-like experience of discovery for audiences. Of course my words must manage the expectations of readers so that they are directed inexorably toward the tale I am telling, yet they have to think, remember similar situations from their own lives. We’ve all had the experience when reading a good story of seeing it unfold within the mind’s eye. As we eagerly anticipate what’s around the next corner, we are “living it,” so to speak, because our interpretation of what is represented in the story is based in part on recollections of our own experiences. That “living it” is a personal response with emotions from life associated with it. If a story touches readers in that way, it’s more engaging. Having become associated with personal experiences, the story is all the more memorable as well.
Although I plan both my stories with outlines and paintings with sketches, I leave lots of room for discovery so the process of creation is an exciting one of exploration. Initiating conversations with audience and having a high level of discovery in the work keeps me interested and excited about the painting, drawing and writing. Those are the things that most inspire and intrigue me.
TLR: Where do your ideas come from? What inspires and intrigues you?
AMC: As to where my ideas come from—it’s not as if I sit down with an empty mind and boom there’s an idea. It is more a process of evolution, one that stretches back to my childhood, and it always begins with what allows me to feel comfortable. I can see the process more clearly with my visual art, so I’ll use that as an example. When I was a small child, parents, teachers, and friends encouraged me. I did the ordinary things kids do, like draw in my note book, draw what my friends drew, draw what I saw in books—space ships, skeletons, airplanes, dinosaurs, and cars. With all the encouragement I got, I thought I was good, so I drew a lot. I drew the same things over and over and they got better each time, and each time I would be just a little more ambitious, adding a sword to the skeleton, having the airplane attacking the dinosaur, and so on. I’d give the things I was comfortable drawing new attributes. In doing this my repertoire of images and ideas grew. This went on for years as I picked up style and technique from those around me, and from experimentation, until I began to feel that I could create anything I wanted. The process was not so different with writing.
TLR: Where have you been published? Upcoming publications? Awards and other accolades?
AMC: I’ve had novels published by SwallowDown Press, Five Star, Raw Dog Screaming Press, Lazy Fascist Press, and FD Publishing. In illustration, my works have been published by over 100 different publishers, among them Walker and Company, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Tor Books, Ace Books, McGraw-Hill, ROC, Kitchen Sink Press, Gauntlet, Inc., Fedogan and Bremer, Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club, Chaosium, Cemetery Dance Publications, and Easton Press. My novel The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, was released by IFD Publishing in March 2016. My historical fiction novel, A Brutal Chill in August, the third book in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series, will be released by Word Horde in August of 2016. I Am the recipient of four Chelsley Awards and the World Fantasy Award.
TLR: What are you working on now?
AMC: In writing, I’m promoting my newest novel, The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, which is an autobiography with a fantasy/horror fiction element added. I’m beginning the work on the fourth novel in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series, one about the life of Annie Chapman, the murderer’s second victim. In illustration, I’m finishing up work—a full-color wrap-around cover and fifteen black and white interior images—on a Signature Series book, Siege, by Matt Costello, for Cemetery Dance Publication.
TLR: What challenges have you faced as a writer and/or with a particular project? How did you meet them? What did you learn from these challenges and how did it make you a better writer?
AMC: I had difficulty at first feeling up to writing very emotional stories. I had the idea for my novel, Jack the Ripper Victims Series: Of Thimble and Threat, for almost twenty years before I was willing to take a stab at it (yes, I’m trying to be funny). The story is based on the life of Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper’s fourth victim, and inspired by the list of possessions found on her person at the scene of her murder. She had over fifty items, including several layers of clothing like you might find on a homeless person today. She had numerous bags and pockets which no doubt held the smaller items, probably hidden under her top skirt. Her husband had left her. She was estranged from her children. She was a forty-four year old alcoholic with little work and income, a casual prostitute, surviving on the streets of Whitechapel. She seemed to have little value to the society in which she lived. She’d stayed the two nights prior to her death in the casual ward of the workhouse, an outdoor area of sleeping stalls with hay in them provided for the transient, the ill, and the known criminals that either didn’t want to enter the workhouse proper or were barred from it. She was probably carrying everything she owned, and sleeping with it at night, hidden in those bags and pockets. Amongst her possessions, perhaps the most valuable item, was a partial pair of spectacles. She had one red mitten. She had a tin box for tea, one for sugar, one for matches, various sewing needs, and menstruation rags. When I first encountered the list, I was floored by my emotional response to it as I tried to imagine her pitiful existence. I read up on what we know about her life, and a poignant story presented itself. I imagined the novel that I would write many years later, one in which the chapters were titled for the items she acquired, the acquisitions incidental to the telling of the tale. I resisted the story as long as I could because I didn’t feel I had enough depth of character to pull it off. Then a publisher asked me for a novel, and I knew that whatever I wrote would have to be the most emotionally ambitious undertaking I’d ever considered. I had to try to write about Catherine Eddowes. In the process, I discovered a story far richer and more emotionally satisfying and challenging than anything I’d done before. Since then, my confidence in my writing has grown immensely.
TLR: Who are your favorite characters? How did they come into being, and what do you love – or loathe – about them?
AMC: The Harpe brothers, Micajah and Wiley, from my historical fiction novel, The Door That Faced West, are a couple of my favorites among the characters I’ve created. I love as well as loathe them. They were savage American land pirates, seemingly afraid of nothing, who lived during the late 18th/early 19th century. The younger brother, Wiley, was rash and put them in danger frequently. The brothers survived Wiley’s risky behavior in large part because Micajah was so big and capable in a fight. Although fiercely loyal to one another, as Micajah grew older and lost some of his capability, he grew resentful toward Wiley for depending on him in a fight. The brothers shared a wife between them, then took on two more wives which they also shared. The politics between the wives was a lot of fun, but the politics between the brothers was still more interesting. As Micajah fell in love with one of the wives, the youngest, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a minister, he became protective of her. Still, he was too much of a violent brute to talk about how he felt. He became more cautious in general. I expressed his tenderness toward the young woman through his actions alone. Wiley wasn’t ready to settle down. He wanted the wild, brutal life they’d led to continue, so he took greater risks that increasingly threatened the well-being of the five. The tension that grew up between them was a lot of fun to write.
TLR: I know our readers would love to hear about your networking, marketing, and promotional experiences.
AMC: Changes in the publishing landscape have become more swift and dramatic with each passing year. Increasingly, publishers want to depend on authors to sell their own work. This is most frustrating in the sale of whole books, novels, and collections. Various social media can help get the message out, but people don’t really listen when authors present their own work as worthy of time and attention – and that’s what we’re asking for when we push our own work. We’re saying, “You will not regret devoting hours to reading my novel.” But, of course, we would say that, wouldn’t we? When I make announcements about my work online or provide links to places to purchase my writing, I simultaneously offer some free content that helps lead people to the work I want to sell. I offer images I’ve produced as illustrations for the work or links to articles about the history behind the story, or blog posts that highlight interesting themes addressed in the fiction. With the blog posts in particular, I make the links to points of purchase incidental to what I’m offering. With artwork, pitches are easier, since people can know if they like the artist’s work almost immediately after looking at a few example pieces. Gaining an audience for one’s writing is a much slower process because of the time the reader must invest.
Again, I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier in the interview: To be recognized for our own work, we must do what we can to raise the perceived value of the art we produce. What that involves varies for all of us, but at the heart of it is making every effort to expose our work to an increasingly wide audience. While perception of artwork belongs to the individual, we all enjoy sharing our experiences. We like to know that others have responded in a similar way and test that by expressing something about our experience that might be special, something worth relating to others. With all that communication between individuals, perception of any given piece of art is influenced by community. The perceived value of a community determines the level of excitement people have over a particular work or an artist. In order to encourage the sharing, audiences must be invited in and given room to contribute to the implicit conversation of a piece of art; our creations must offer them a playground for the imagination, one that they will want to return to often, either in memory or through exploring additional pieces of our work.
TLR: Thank you so much for creating the time for this expansive interview. Please review Alan’s bio below, visit his website, and of course. . . read – and view – his work.
Author and illustrator, Alan M. Clark, grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. He has created illustrations for hundreds of books, including works of fiction of various genres, nonfiction, textbooks, young adult fiction, and children’s books. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of seventeen published books, including ten novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon.