George Willis is the first author to be interviewed for our “Featured Authors” series which is dedicated to new writers of obvious talent and demonstrated skill. After reading his story “Measure of a Man” in the Black Quill Award-nominated anthology Midnight Walk I contacted George and he graciously assented to be interviewed.
Before beginning, here’s a small taste from “Measure of a Man”:
As the night wore on he was happy to see subtle hints of approaching daylight; the normally brilliant stars had dimmed and their numbers were diminishing. His boredom turned into restless anticipation while he waited for the sun to rise up from the sea, bringing with it much desired sleep and the arrival of his replacement.
Damp pre-dawn air coiled around him and caressed his exposed flesh. Lindani rubbed his arms vigorously, but it was not enough to stave off the cold. He desperately wanted to light a fire, but doing so would give away his position, so he decided instead to keep warm by practicing the fighting techniques he had learned in training. Not yet allowed a real spear, he executed the drills with a hand-carved lance he had fashioned over the course of many nights spent in quiet solitude. In the midst of shadow-fighting an imaginary foe, he suddenly stopped.
Something was moving through the fog.
SLP: First the basics, George: Where and when were you born?
GW: I was born in the early 1960s in Hollywood, California. When my parents married, their neighbor, Frank Faylen, a character actor in films probably best known as the cabbie in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, was their Best Man. His daughter came to the wedding with her then-beau, Regis Philbin.
SLP: And where were you raised?
GW: I was raised primarily in the Pasadena area of Los Angeles.
SLP: Where were you educated?
GW: With the exception of kindergarten, I went to private schools in Pasadena and Los Angeles.
SLP: Where do you currently reside?
GW: I live in the west San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The town I live in is notable for being quotable as a line from a blockbuster movie and a popular song, both from the 1980s.
SLP: Other than writing, what is your principal occupation?
GW: To eke out a living, I work in the TV and Film Industry like just about everyone else in these here parts. Many of my friends are actors, writers, and musicians, who all use their talents in the industry. I’ve been in the field for nearly 20 years.
SLP: What do you write?
GW: I’ve written in a few different genres, but for some reason I find that much of it tends to be “coming of age” types of stories.
SLP: What genres appeal to you as both writer and reader?
GW: I go through phases. At one time I read all the Stephen King I could get my hands on. Before that it was C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I enjoy reading just about anything. Of late, I’ve been reading more non-fiction and getting into history. I’ve also been going back and reading other works that I was never introduced to growing up, like On the Road, Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch-22.
SLP: What writers have most influenced your work?
GW: Henry Miller, Christopher Moore, and Stephen King immediately come to mind. I know what some people are thinking. “Wow, those three are pretty far afield when it comes to writing.” While I’ve read tons of other things over the years, only Miller, Moore, and King made me want to sit down and write.
I love Henry Miller for his amazing and broad vocabulary and his mastery of the language. He would take everyday common words, skip their primary and secondary meanings and would instead use their tertiary and quaternary definitions.
Christopher Moore’s stories are not only hilarious, but they are a great way to learn the mechanics of writing good comedy. He makes it look smooth and effortless; it’s anything but. Putting comedy down on paper and making it come across to the reader is difficult, so it is great to have Moore’s books as study guides.
And in my opinion, the Bard of Bangor is the King of the turn of phrase. He could write a six paragraph description of something as mundane as a doorknob, but make it come alive.
SLP: Have you considered other forms of writing such as screenwriting or travel writing?
GW: I enjoy going on journeys, whether long distance treks to other countries or plain old road trips, so travel writing is something I might try my hand at in the future. Screenwriting is a foreign format to me. It is something that I’d have to really work at, since it is so different from other types of writing.
SLP: Give us some insight into your writing process. For example, do you write primarily at home?
GW: I do most of my writing at home in a cozy room with a nice view of the yard. The room doubles as my writing haven as well as a being a small library. While writing, I tune the radio to a classical music station and keep it at low volume. My musical tastes are all over the map, but there generally aren’t any lyrics in classical for my brain to try and follow along with, so it’s become my writing music of choice.
SLP: Do you ever write in public places such as coffee shops and so forth?
GW: I find that it’s nice to take a break from familiar surroundings and get a fresh perspective on things. Often times I’ll take a few printed pages (double spaced) of a section of that needs reworking and go someplace, have lunch, and scribble notes. It was strange at first, but I learned to tune out the distractions. This has been very helpful in not only editing, but also in catching typos, et cetera.
SLP: Do you often write during your travels?
GW: I enjoy reading travelogues but don’t know were the authors found the time and energy to keep journals. I’ve tried it on occasion, but only once did I ever start a travel journal and maintain it throughout the entire trip. Most of the time I’d start one, but within a few days, I’d fall behind and then never finish it. There are usually so many things going on that I don’t have the time to write down the day’s events. I have gone back once or twice after the fact and filled in the missing pages. In the future I’ll have to try and budget my time to include journaling.
SLP: Do you set aside specific times to write? If so, when?
GW: I don’t have a set time that I’ll sit down and write. Writing is not a mechanical thing for me. There are times when I’m just not in the mood to write, and it shows on the pages. I can write pretty much any time of day, but in particular I enjoy writing in the evening as there are fewer distractions, i.e. no trash trucks, airplanes, the neighbor’s gardener, etc., so it is quieter. I’ve also found that crawling out of bed and immediately sitting down to write before doing anything else also works well for me. My mind is fresh and uncluttered so ideas come much more readily.
SLP: If possible would you like to write full time, or do you have competing enthusiasms?
GW: If I were able to make a living writing full time, I would definitely quit my day job. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my line of work, but it would give me more time to write as well as squeeze in other things I’m fond of, like travel and eclipse chasing.
SLP: Why do you write? Do you feel compelled to write, or is it a hobby?
GW: I never felt like I just had to write. It’s not like it’s been a lifelong calling of mine or anything like that. I’d dabbled in it now and then, but it’s only been of late that I’ve taken it seriously and really worked at it.
SLP: When and how did your interest in writing first manifest itself?
GW: Some of my earliest short stories were written to be performed as what I called “Thirty Second Theater”. I wrote out mini-stories that could be read in thirty seconds or less. I used these as my answering machine messages. I realized that most people don’t like long messages, so I stopped doing them. It wasn’t until later I learned that some of my friends really liked them and asked why I didn’t do them anymore.
SLP: Has your interest in travel been influenced by writers such as Paul Theroux, Jan Morris or other notable travel writers?
GW: The first thing I can remember that sparked my interest in travel was the book Born Free by Joy Adamson. I read it when I was 9 or 10-years-old and wanted to go to Africa to see the lions firsthand. Other influences were “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and “Daktari” on TV and the film “Kon Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl. Around the same time my parents took my brothers and me on a few road trips, and I was hooked. Some thirty years after reading Born Free I finally made it to Africa and walked amongst wild lions in Zimbabwe.
SLP: How do you write? Do you primarily write on a computer? If so, a laptop?
GW: I do most of my writing on a desktop computer. I like the familiar surroundings. Once in awhile, out of necessity, I’ll break out my laptop to write, but my writing mode of choice is my desktop computer.
SLP: Do you carry a notebook or gadget for note taking?
GW: I did NaNoWriMo* a few years back, and when I got stuck on a plotline, I’d take a break and go for a long walk along a nearby bike path. I brought along a small notebook to scribble down ideas, but it isn’t something I normally do. If I have some sort of idea or inspiration, I jot them down on whatever happens to be handy.
SLP: Do you take copious notes?
GW: I’m not much of a note-taker per se. Sometimes a line of dialogue or a story title or even a whole story will come to me all at once, and I’ll make a quick note of it. When I look at it later, that is usually enough to remind me of the whole thing.
SLP: And now to your work specifically: Regarding Midnight Walk, how did the idea of an anthology come about?
GW: A few years ago a friend invited me to join his writers group. At the monthly meetings (which were more informal gatherings than actual meetings), the thing I heard most from the other writers was that it was hard for newcomers to get their names out there. I suggested that we put together an anthology of our stories as a sort of “calling card” to give out at the annual World Horror Convention. And out of that, Midnight Walk was born.
SLP: Considering the other contributors, was the book a collaborative effort as to story order, story length, cover design, etc.?
GW: From beginning to end, Midnight Walk was a collaborative effort. We did everything as a group, from hammering out the broadest of concepts to the minutest of details. Everyone was given the chance to suggest a title for the anthology as well as submit artwork for the cover. We voted on everything—font size, cover art, book title, the weight of paper used, paper color (i.e., bright white or cream), even who to name as “editor” in the slim chance that the book won any awards. (There needed to be an “editor” because Best Anthology awards are given to the editor.)
We were our own editors as well. We all read, critiqued, and proofread one another’s work. When a story was finished, it was passed along to the person we named editor, who chose the story order and did the layout. When the layout was done, it was given one final read through by someone in the group who does copy-editing for a living. They in turn worked with each author to make sure that any minor grammatical issues were resolved.
SLP: Before writing “The Measure of a Man” had you visited the Zulu tribal areas of Africa?
GW: While “The Measure of a Man” is the story of a young Zulu training to be a warrior, I have never actually been to any Zulu tribal areas.
SLP: How did you come to be familiar with Zulu culture?
GW: Most of my familiarity with the Zulu culture has come from TV and film, as well as research while writing the story. I stitched everything together to try and make the descriptions of the people and their culture as believable and as accurate as I could.
SLP: Why Africa for the setting?
GW: When writing the story, I wanted to do something different. It seemed to me that most horror stories I was familiar with came from everywhere else besides Africa. To make it even more unusual, I set the story in the 19th century, so the protagonists didn’t have modern day weapons to use when defending themselves from their attackers.
SLP: Are you mainly interested in writing for the young adult market?
GW: In writing a story, I try to come up with a tale that I’d want to read. For whatever reason, some of my stories have turned out to be “coming of age” stories and could be categorized as fitting the Young Adult market, but that hasn’t been my aim. I don’t try to write for a particular market, I just write what interests me and hope others enjoy it, whether it is YA or sci-fi or horror or whatever.
SLP: Did you have the story fully plotted, including the ending, before beginning?
GW: I never had a real plot when I penned “The Measure of a Man”. I came up with the setting, (South Africa, 1800s), the basic idea, (Zulu warriors meet the undead), then let my imagination take over. I had no beginning or end when I sat down to write it, just a premise. It was a large glob of clay that needed to be sculpted and shaped into a story. “Measure” was something I had been working on before the anthology came up. It went through a few drafts and some major overhauls before it saw the light of day. The first draft and the final story are vastly different from one another.
SLP: What’s your next writing project and is it underway?
GW: I’m currently working on a Young Adult western novel, that’s been a few years in the making. It started out as a NaNoWriMo* story and blossomed from there. It currently clocks in at around 450 pages in length and is in its third draft. I took it to a Young Adult writer’s workshop to see what I could do to get it ready for publishing, et cetera. I was warned ahead of time by a friend to wear my “thick skin” because they were very tough at the workshop and pulled no punches when it came to critiquing. By the end of the weekend I was pleased to find that both students and faculty alike thought it was a great story and really enjoyed it.
Since the novel is nearing completion, I’ve begun to map out its sequel, which I have a basic idea of what I want to happen. Like the first novel, I have a beginning, an end, and a few plot points I want to hit along the way. Whatever happens in between is anybody’s guess right now.
I also have a horror/western story that I began some time ago that I want to get back to and work on. It’s still in the early stages, but it has a good foundation from which to continue.
SLP: When do you anticipate finishing it?
GW: It is going to take a little while longer to get the story ready to start shopping it around to agents, but I expect that it should be finished by summer 2010.
SLP: Can you offer a ‘high concept’ or brief plot summary?
GW: The story takes place in pre-Civil War times and follows the adventures of a boy, orphaned by fire, who at age 11 ends up wanted for murder. To avoid the hangman’s noose he flees cross country, all the while being tracked down by a pair of detectives from the Pinkerton Agency with an agenda of their own.
SLP: And finally a few general interest items: Since you like to travel so much, have you considered living outside the US? If so, where?
GW: The idea of living outside the U.S. is an intriguing one. I love living here for all the freedoms that I have, but if I had to leave, I would consider living in Australia, New Zealand, and the Mediterranean.
SLP: What do you believe will be the short- and longterm impact of ebooks on the publishing industry?
GW: In the short term, I think that e-books will be quite successful and popular. As for what the future holds, I believe e-books will help shape how the publishing industry prices print books, but I don’t think they will ever completely take their place.
SLP: And lastly, do you have any interesting travel anecdotes you’d be willing to share?
GW: I recently made a trip to Death Valley National Park. While most of the group I was traveling with wanted to go hiking one day, two of my friends and I decided to do something different. The two women and I went instead to the nearby town of Pahrump, Nevada. While there we drove to the Pahrump Museum, but as it was a Monday, the museum was closed. Not wanting to have made the drive for naught, we looked for something else to see and do. It was then we spied a billboard advertising a “brothel art museum”.
My two companions said “We have got to see this! Seriously? A brothel art museum? How can that not be interesting?” So off we went in search of Crystal, Nevada, home of the museum, and coincidentally the closest brothels to Las Vegas. (While legal in most counties, brothels are illegal in Clark County, where Vegas is situated.)
We followed the instructions on the billboard and headed off deeper into the desert. We were so far out of Pahrump that we thought we’d missed seeing the town of Crystal. Just as we were about to turn back, we crested a hill and spotted what looked like a little town on the valley floor with nothing else around it for miles.
The single-lane road leading up to Crystal was deserted. There were a couple of beat up trailers and old homes along the road, but everything looked abandoned. I told my friends, “Be on the lookout for people with chainsaws or kids jumping out of cornfields. If you spot anyone like that, we’re outta here!”
We came to a small T-intersection. On one corner were two attached buildings sitting at the back of a gravel parking lot. Nearby was the sign for the art museum. We had arrived! As we drove across the parking lot, we couldn’t help but notice the large Plexiglas figure of a dancing girl out front of the Cherry Patch Brothel. Equally prominent was the sign at the gate leading inside the Cherry Patch: “REMODELING — USE BROTHEL AROUND THE CORNER.”
There were two other vehicles in the parking lot of the “art museum,” which also happened to be a bar. A female bartender and two patrons in biker gear looked up when we entered. The room consisted of the bar, a few tables and a stage dominated by big screen projection TV. Beers were ordered and I asked about the museum. The bartender pointed to a wall on the far side of the joint, which was home to hundreds of shellacked-over newspaper articles about the local brothels. What a let down. The whole trip would have been a waste of time but for one other thing—the human skeleton in the wood and glass display case on the stage.
I left our table in the middle of the room and approached the bar. “I’m sorry, but I gotta ask… why is there a skeleton in a display case on the stage?”
The bartender was very nonchalant when she looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s Agnes. She’s a prostitute they found hidden in the wall of a brothel that was being torn down.”
SLP: Thank you very much, George. I feel confident in saying that if your upcoming book ‘measures’ up to “The Measure of a Man” in quality and originality we can expect to see much more from you in the future.
*National Novel Writing Month, a challenge held in November to pen a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. You can find more at their website http://www.NaNoWriMo.org
Midnight Walk is available in both paperback and ebook editions at leading booksellers