The Scariest Part: Tracy Townsend Talks About THE NINE

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Tracy Townsend, whose debut novel is The Nine. Here is the publisher’s description:

A book that some would kill for…

Black market courier Rowena Downshire is doing everything she can to stay off the streets and earn enough to pay her mother’s way to freedom. But an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares.

The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, but when a frightened and empty-handed courier shows up on his doorstep he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see — the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.

Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating a stolen book that writes itself may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon learns the text may have been written by the Creator himself, tracking the nine human subjects of his Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.

This unlikely team must try to keep the book from those who would misuse it. But how can they be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen to them when it reveals a secret no human was meant to know?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Tracy Townsend:

It took every ounce of my will to keep from answering the phone on the first ring.

It was a Monday morning, and I was waiting for the call from the literary agent who’d read my manuscript with such fervor, we’d spent the last weekend chatting over email about my career. He’d read the whole manuscript in five days, then scheduled a call. We were to discuss a revise and resubmit, something he didn’t usually handle over the phone. This was Very Serious Business.

When my phone finally blazed to life, I did my best to be good. Disciplined. Focused. Professional. And I was, mostly.

I answered halfway through the second ring.

The conversation glowed with praise and visions of my potential. The agent had been looking for a writer of adult fantasy for while. He wanted something smart, nuanced, and dark. Something stylistically complex. He saw the right signs in The Nine. I listened. I paced. I always pace when I’m on the phone. It helps keep me from talking too fast. When we got to the part about the agent’s concerns, I had to sit down and take notes. Everything was fine (my now pent-up energy notwithstanding) until we got to his last concern.

“About the aigamuxa,” he said. “I’m not sure about them.”

My heart had been racing. Suddenly, it clogged with an emotion I couldn’t quite parse. Disappointment. Frustration. And, yes. Fear. I was ready to hear that he thought ogre-like antagonists with eyes on their feets were just too weird. Or that he wasn’t sure how they could be perceived as a threat, given that bizarre anatomy. I was ready for any of a half-dozen skeptical reactions to The Nine’s antagonist species, because I’d fielded them already with beta readers and critique partners. I wasn’t ready for this conversation, though.

“I think fantasy readers need a villain they can hate or fear. Something morally concrete. The aigamuxa,” he paused. “They actually have good reason to hate human beings. They were colonized and enslaved. Now they live on the margin of society, without any rights or security. Of course they hate people. Anybody would. How can you ask the reader to see them as the monsters?”

I blurted the words out before I could stop myself. “That’s not what I want at all.” So much for being professional.

My pen dropped from my hand, rolling off the notepad to sit beside my keyboard. What was I thinking? This agent had New York Times bestsellers on his list. Clients with movie deals secured on their debut novels. “Sold at auction” was quickly becoming his middle name. Why wasn’t I just saying, “Of course! I can change that!”?

“Let me explain,” I said, getting back to my feet to pace. I took a breath and tried to speak slowly. “The aigamuxa aren’t villains. They’re antagonists — the ones who oppose. And they are people. They may have claws and razor teeth and eyes on their feet, but they’re still people. They’re not wrong to hate humanity. I want the reader to recognize that. I want the reader to be afraid for the protagonists and to root for them and also recognize that what threatens them isn’t just evil for its own sake.”

“But readers need to know they’re on the right side. Tell you what. What if the aigamuxa are this proud warrior people and they lost some battle to humanity, and then got left alone to lick their wounds, so now they want revenge for the blow to their pride? Like Germany after World War I, perhaps?”

I shook my head. “My characters have done terrible things. They aren’t the good guys. And mankind isn’t, either. They’ve treated the world like it only exists to fuel their knowledge of divinity, or like it’s some kind of puzzle God wants them to solve. If they were only good, what’s so scary about a book that records God’s judgments? What would anybody have to be afraid of, if we could be sure we were in the right? I don’t want to coddle my readers. I don’t want a story with neat moral boundaries and tidy, clean conflicts. It’s full of wounded hearts and people who have been done wrong. Monsters should get the same treatment.”

Another pause. “It’s your story. You should do what you think is right. I’m just not sure that’s going to work.”

We talked a little more, then hung up. Months later, I sent him the revision. As it turns out, the agent didn’t think it worked, but another agent did, and offered representation just hours after the first emailed his regrets. We went on to sell my book of washed-up mercenaries and antagonists with just causes and heroes with baggage and existential uncertainties. Fighting to keep my monsters human (and my humans a little monstrous) was the scariest part of The Nine because it was a battle for the soul of the book itself. I hadn’t set out to do something simple with my readers’ hearts, even if might sell more easily or get better reviews. I had set out to explore what scares me about human nature, what hope we have of redeeming ourselves, and what happens when we’re called to account for the wrongs we’ve done.

I had to write a book I was too scared to give up on. I hope it scares you the same way.

The Nine: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Tracy Townsend: Website / Twitter / Goodreads

Tracy Townsend holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is a past chair of the English Department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she currently teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. Her debut novel, The Nine, is the first in the Thieves of Fate series, published by Pyr November 14, 2017.

The Exorcist

The ExorcistThe Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve seen the movie a thousand times — it’s one of my all-time favorites — but I thought it was finally time to read the novel it was based on. Turns out, THE EXORCIST the novel is almost identical to THE EXORCIST the movie, which I suppose should come as no surprise considering William Peter Blatty wrote both of them. (It should be noted that Blatty got his start in screenwriting, not novel writing. He even wrote the screenplay for the excellent Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau film “A Shot in the Dark”!) The novel delves a little deeper into discussions of witchcraft and the lives of the people around Chris MacNeil, such as Willie and Karl, her housekeepers, and Sharon, MacNeil’s assistant and Regan’s babysitter, but overall it’s nearly identical.

But while the story and the characters of THE EXORCIST remain indelible classics, the novel has some problems that kept me from fully enjoying it. One of the biggest issues for me is that Blatty keeps Regan mostly off the page for the first half of the novel, even after the possession begins. She’s talked about a lot more than we actually get to see her. It has a distancing effect that dilutes the horror of the story, which is something I’m pretty sure Blatty didn’t intend, and indeed he corrected it later with the screenplay. But the result of keeping Regan away from the reader for so much of the novel is that we get a lot more telling than showing, which is definitely less fun to read. (There’s significantly less of this in the second half, although it’s still there in places, and I have to wonder if all this telling instead of showing is a holdover from Blatty’s screenwriting experience.)

Another problem that kept me from fully enjoying the novel is the prose. It’s lifeless, clunky, and clipped, to the point where I grew confused in a few places about what Blatty is trying to convey. There are way too many one-word sentences, for instance, as if Blatty were rushing, still writing in short hand for a film script instead of penning the more immersive prose of a novel. Interestingly, the writing becomes significantly better in the second half of the novel, and the fact that this improvement accompanies Regan’s reappearance on the page strikes me as no coincidence. As a writer, Blatty is fully engaged in the second half of the novel, as everything comes to a head, and seems quite happy to leave the more shallow and skittish first half far behind.

One last issue I had was with Lieutenant Kinderman. In the film he’s a great character (wonderfully portrayed by Lee J. Cobb), but in the novel comes off as a kvetching Jewish stereotype. Since I myself am a kvetching Jewish stereotype, I found this somewhat grating.

I might be nitpicking ridiculously, but I think this is one of those rare occasions where the best version of the story is the film adaptation, rather than the novel it’s based on. Or at the very least, I came away from reading THE EXORCIST preferring the movie.

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Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the '70s and '80sPaperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the ’70s and ’80s by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Breezy, charming, and informative, Grady Hendrix’s PAPERBACKS FROM HELL is an affectionate trip down memory lane for those of us who love horror literature. Separated into sections that focus on themes, Hendrix’s well-researched book dives deep into the trends that informed both the plots and the cover art, providing a reliable and welcome education that consistently maintains a chatty, friendly voice. His summaries of many of the novels are hilarious, perhaps even more so when you realize he’s not exaggerating; the novels really were that over the top! (Nazi S&M leprechauns, anyone?) The full-color cover art reproduced throughout the book is a real joy. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them I recognized. I highly recommend PAPERBACKS FROM HELL for anyone with an interest in, or nostalgia for, horror literature’s most gonzo era.

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The Sky Is Yours

The Sky is YoursThe Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was thrilled to get a sneak peek at this novel thanks to an ARC from Penguin Random House! All the promise that Chandler Klang Smith showed in GOLDENLAND PAST DARK is both confirmed and built upon impressively in THE SKY IS YOURS, an epic adventure tale set in a richly imagined world that has gone on way past its expiration date. The alternate near-future of Empire Island comes to life in astonishing detail through Smith’s colorful, expert prose, as well as through the eyes of the three main characters as they’re let loose into the city to find their own ways (and themselves): Duncan, the selfish, spoiled son of a wealthy family; Swanny, Duncan’s fiancee, whose love of old Gothic romances informs not just the way she sees the world but also the path her life is about to take; and Abby, the naive, feral girl rescued from an island of trash to live in what is basically another island of trash.

While many of the science-fictional elements in THE SKY IS YOURS are satirical, I hesitate to call the novel itself a satire. It’s definitely wacky and whimsical in places–Smith’s sense of humor is evident on most pages and takes many forms, from bawdy jokes to the way certain scenes are presented as film scripts or video game charts–but it can also be quite dramatic and serious. It’s a hopeful novel about what it takes to grow up and find your place in the world, even if the world is dying; a deeply cynical novel about whether such a world is even worth saving; and, in some ways, a bittersweet novel about first romantic relationships, all the dreams, passion, and disappointment that go hand in hand.

THE SKY IS YOURS is a remarkable achievement by a writer with a seemingly boundless imagination. Smith’s creative energy fills each page to bursting. Like its characters, THE SKY IS YOURS exists in a balance between two worlds, the literary and the science-fictional, and readers who enjoy both will find it to be a treat both delicious and filling.

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