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Interview 5.5.5.: Tom Piccirilli on writing

Interview 5.5.5. returns this week with one of the most talented authors working today: Tom Piccirilli.

For those new to the blog, Interview 5.5.5. is a semi-regular feature in which I pose five questions each on five different topics to an author over five consecutive days. The feature debuted a couple of months ago with Norman Partridge, and I'm pleased to have Tom Piccirilli stepping in for the follow-up. In one of those happy coincidences that I wish I could say I planned, the two share common appreciation-bordering-on-obsession with the world of hard-boiled noir. In Partridge's case, that love wells up in his horror output - for Piccirilli, who came on the scene writing supernatural stories, it's led him directly into the world of crime fiction. And believe you me, he's coming out swinging with both fists. His work may have its origins in pulp, but there is an intelligent, literary cadence to his work that makes other writers take to the paper shredder in frustration in envy.

But more on that later. In today's installment, I'm picking Piccirilli's brain on his start in the writing business. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Interview 5.5.5., Day One with Mr. Tom Piccirilli.

BG: What was your “ah-ha!” moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

TP: I don’t think there was any one moment. I’d been writing stories since I was a child, but somewhere along the line I started to get serious about the process. By eighth or ninth grade I was spending a lot of time writing science fiction and “Land of the Lost” type of tales. I stayed committed to the experience and just kept on writing, usually at lunch and in study hall. I filled a couple of those old marble notebooks with early attempts at novels.

Tell us about the first story you remember writing.

It was called “Dimension X,” about two friends who fall into scientist’s inter-dimensional gateway and wind up battling monsters in some jungle valley. I was maybe 11. I found that I loved expressing myself and entertaining folks through the written word. I guess my course was set from right about then.

Talk about your first acceptance. What was it like to find out that someone liked your work enough to publish it?

I started off a little ass-backwards compared to most folks. I sold my first novel before I sold any short fiction.

As mentioned I was writing novels pretty early on. My senior year in college I started working on the manuscript for what would become my first published novel Dark Father. I sent in a partial over-the-transom to Simon & Schuster and somehow it caught the attention of an editor who was interested in the book. I finished the novel over the next six months and immediately started another. By the time Dark Father was published I had a couple of other unsold novel manuscripts. For the next couple of years I wrote novels exclusively only to discover they wouldn’t sell either. I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to focus on short fiction.

For a year or so I wrote nothing but short stories. When they started to sell to the various horror magazines of the time I went back, re-edited the novels, and then they started to move too. As Richard Brautigan says, “I wrote a poem to sell a novel. I wrote a novel to sell a poem.” That seems to be the case for me too. One form helped me to learn the other.

From what I’ve read on your blog and in interviews, you keep a somewhat unusual writing schedule as compared to a lot of other authors. Describe it for us, and tell us why it works best for you?

Is it unusual? Maybe only because I’m a full-time writer and have the luxury of f*****g off all day long. I seem to write in short bursts, when the mood strikes. So I’ll knock off a few paragraphs, then go read for a while. Write some more and then walk the dogs. Write and go watch a DVD. So my head is always in the story but I’m not burning out in my desk chair. I’m not one of these guys who can presumably write for ten hours straight. So long as I get about a thousand clean words a day, I’m happy.

What’s the best part about writing for a living? What’s the worst?

The best is being my own boss. Nobody steals any of my time, nobody pushes me around, nobody tells me when I can break for lunch or go to the water cooler. My art is my job. Worst part is everything else. No stability, no health insurance, no paid vacations, no year-end bonus, no corporate retreat, no underlings to do my fatcat work for me.

Tomorrow: Tom Piccirilli on his early days in horror

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