I think I met Steven Sidor about 12 years ago and I think it was at a Bouchercon mystery convention and I think we were both scoring free drinks at a Minotaur Books party because I know (it's nice to be certain about something in this crazy world) that we were both writing for Minotaur back then. Something else I know: Steven's books were very different from mine -- dark psychological thrillers rather than goofy historical mysteries. And something else I know: That difference didn't matter, because Steven and I were instantly simpatico.
Maybe it was because we were both young-ish writers (at the time) with young (no -ish about it) children and a similarly relaxed approach to marketing and touring (i.e., we didn't do much). Or maybe it was because we were both Midwestern nerds who were a little surprised to find themselves doing grown-up things like selling books and hobnobbing at a publisher's party. Maybe it was because we almost have the same first name. Maybe it was the free drinks. Whatever the reason, we hit it off, and although we only crossed paths once after that we stayed in touch over the years. So when Steven asked me if I'd take a look at the new novel he was working on -- a salute to monster movies, pulp fiction and spaghetti Westerns called Los Mummies -- my response was (A) but of course, my fine fellow, and (B) "Los Mummies"?!? Let me at it!
That title eventually changed (dammit), but I'm happy to report that the book has since been published with the following blurb attached:
"Little-known fact: H. Rider Haggard and H.P. Lovecraft once stole a time machine and piloted it decades into the future, where they convinced Sergio Leone and Steven Spielberg to help them create the greatest horror-adventure-Western mash-up imaginable to human minds. Or so I’m assuming, because I just read Fury From the Tomb. Obviously, 'SA Sidor' is the pseudonym they all agreed upon so no meddlers would come after the time machine. But I'm not fooled."
It's such a fun book I decided to give it more than a blurb: I'm also hyping it here with one of my sporadic Q&A interviews. Steven and I didn't have any free drinks to get the conversation started this time, but read on and you'll see that we've got plenty to say to each other without the help.
Me: Going from dark thrillers to a book with murderous mummies, zombie banditos and giant worms feels like a pretty big change-up. How did that come about?
Steven: I like writing dark thrillers. I was actually writing one at the same time I wrote Fury From the Tomb. When I'm working on a novel, I usually have another side project going at the same time, something I write just for fun, to get the juices going, and to keep me loose. Sometimes the side project is a short story or a novella. But it's always radically different from the novel I'm working on. My last two thrillers actually had supernatural elements in them. When it came to Fury, I let go with everything I liked in pulp adventures: old tombs, curses, monsters, hopping vampires... if it popped into my head and I could fit it in the story, I put it in. When I told my agent about my side project, she asked to see it. Then she said to drop everything and WRITE THIS BOOK NOW! So I did.
Me: Hold on..."hopping vampires"? I remember them from the book, of course. They really stand out. (It's quite a compliment to them to say that they "really stand out" when a book has the aforementioned giant worms and zombie banditos. When it comes to memorable creatures and bad guys, Fury from the Tomb is packed.) Are "hopping vampires" a thing? And, if so, how did you run across them?
Steven: My hopping vampires are connected to one of the main characters, Yong Wu, a Chinese boy who works on a train. I knew I wanted vampires on the train. I also wanted them to have a special connection to the boy. Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, come from Chinese folklore. They share some of the same attributes as run-of-the-mill vampires but also have a few unique qualities: their corpses are stiff with outstretched arms, they hop to get around, and they're usually blind but have an excellent sense of smell. Hopping vampires show up in 1980s Hong Kong horror movies. I first ran across them in Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind movies. While typically used for comic purposes, the Jiangshi in Fury From the Tomb have a heartbreaking story behind their monstrous turn.
Me: So let's see if I can tally up all the influences in Fury From the Tomb: 1980s Hong Kong horror movies, 1960s English horror movies (specifically, Hammer), spaghetti Westerns, H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard (or perhaps Lester Dent?), the Indiana Jones movies, maybe a wee teeny touch of The X-Files and/or Kolchak: The Night Stalker...and...and...could that be it?
Steven: Wow, you nailed the big ones. I'd add The Wild Wild West, which was my favorite TV show as a kid. I loved the craziness of that show and how it incorporated horror, science fiction, and fantasy elements. It was an early mash-up. My bounty hunter, Rex McTroy, owes something to men's adventure writers like Warren Murphy, George G. Gilman, and Max Allan Collins. The sandworm comes directly from Dune, which I was rereading during the time I was writing FFTT. Lastly, I have to give a shout-out to Mumm-Ra. Yes, that Mumm-Ra. I watched ThunderCats (the 1980s version) with my son, and Mumm-Ra struck me as really out of place on that show. He was way too scary. But I loved him.
Me: Of course -- The Wild Wild West! That one hadn't occurred to me, but in hindsight it totally fits. I could see it being an even bigger influence as you move forward with the series, since you'll have more time to focus on the Institute for Singular Antiquities and Rom's role as a globe-trotting troubleshooter-type with a plucky partner, a la James West. (An aside for my personal Wild Wild West fun facts: As a kid I thought it had the best opening credits of any show ever, but I could never watch an episode all the way to the end because none of the stations in my town showed it and whenever I ran across it elsewhere it was right before dinner and I'd be dragged kicking and screaming from the TV. Later, when I was a young journalist just out of college, I had lunch with Robert Conrad, and he was both very nice to me and 110% as intense as you'd think from those "Knock the battery off my shoulder" commercials. Afterwards, he sent me a bottle of Tuaca, which I was too young at the time to appreciate. A few years later I was the only film critic on Earth to kinda sorta like the Wild Wild West reboot -- I have a soft spot for steampunk-y mash-ups -- and for a while my boss was getting emails saying I should be fired because I'd obviously been bribed by Warner Bros.) Hmm...where was I? Oh, yeah -- your series! Tell me about the next Institute for Singular Antiquities book. When's it coming and what's it called and how's it different?
Steven: Conrad is a Chicago guy. I had relatives who knew him in passing. No comment on the Wild Wild West reboot. No wait, one comment: I like Salma Hayek. The Beast of Nightfall Lodge is the next Institute For Singular Antiquities book. At an isolated cliffside retreat, a famous explorer and big game hunter offers a staggering reward for the capture of a murderous beast haunting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Our team of investigators accepts the challenge. Icefalls, killer werecats, mad trappers, a revivified Billy the Kid, and a ghostly white buffalo await them. So does a family who may have lost their minds and souls to the legendary Wendigo. It's The Thing meets The Revenant... but funnier. I'm taking my characters out of the desert and throwing them into a deep freeze for this second adventure. Instead of globetrotting, they're stuck (mostly) in one very scary place. Due in stores February 2019.
Me: Your description of The Beast of Nightfall Lodge -- and your mention of your Chicago connection -- reminds me of another possible influence on the series I didn't ask about before: Doctor Who. (For those who don't know...which would be most readers: Chicago's public TV station, WTTW, showed Doctor Who early and often.) I didn't feel a huge Doctor Who vibe in Fury From the Tomb, but the set-up for the sequel sounds very Who-y. Is that bouncing around in your head, too? (BTW, I promise to stop being such an old nerd as of the next question.)
Steven: I don't think Doctor Who is a big influence on me, not in a conscious way. I watched during the Tom Baker and Peter Davison years. I do admire the teamwork of Doctor Who and his companions. The idea of a team of heroes is central to my series. I didn't want a lone wolf protagonist. None of the heroes in Fury From the Tomb would survive without the others. They're a "family" of misfits, and they need one another and have to learn to deal with their eccentric, annoying, and sometimes dangerous character flaws. That dynamic creates tension and a kind of energy core. Now that does sound Who-y, doesn't it?
Me: There was nothing remotely Who-y about the crime novels you were putting out a few years ago. They were extremely dark and gritty -- almost bleak. I assume the new series has been keeping you busy for a while now, so I'm wondering: Is a part of you itching to turn back to the Dark Side? What happened to that thriller you were working on when you told your agent about Fury From the Tomb, for instance?
Steven: Monsters ignite my imagination. In my dark thrillers I wrote about human monsters in a realistic mode. Now I'm writing about fantastic monsters in a speculative mode. Instead of building stories around serial killers and occultist kidnappers, I'm writing about mummies, ghouls, and Wendigos. I pull everything from the same dark well. I haven't even thought about the thriller I was working on when I stopped to write FFTT. So maybe it wasn't that good. Who knows? I approach writing organically and let my subconscious direct me as much as possible. I don't plan. I follow my instincts. My best writing always comes from a mysterious place. I don't analyze it too much. I listen to the voices I hear in my head. Those voices are characters. If I try to force them to act in a prescribed way, they break. I let them do the driving while I ride shotgun and take notes. It's not the only way to write, but I've learned it's the way that works best for me.
Me: Hearing how much you let your subconscious take the reins makes me wonder if you outline. It sounds like you prefer a more from-the-gut approach. (I know those are both statements rather than a question, but you know what I'm getting at.)
Steven: I do not outline. When I've tried to write outlines in the past, the outlines turned out fine, but I lost the drive to write the story. It felt as though I had already written it. I do write character sketches and a loose chronology of events. I know the ending, where I want things to wind up. Whenever I get stuck in the writing process, I will skip ahead and write a later scene. Then I connect the pieces. I add layers and expand during the editing process, which is constant for me. I start each day by editing the previous day's writing. Three to five pages of new story is a good day for me. The tension of not knowing exactly what comes next is a positive pressure. I want to be surprised just like my readers do. Most days writing is ditch digging -- slow, hard work that builds over time, line by line.
Me: Speaking of what comes next, do you have anything queued up after The Beast of Nightfall Lodge? Now that you've written dark thrillers and pulpy horror-adventures, what's left on your writing bucket list? Science fiction? High fantasy? Amish romance?
Steven: I'm hoping to continue the Institute For Singular Antiquities series. I really love these characters. I have at least two more ideas for books in the series that are growing now in an idea petri dish. Mixing genres appeals to me. I've got an erotic werewolf novel I'd like to write (no kidding, I really do). And maybe a far-out sword-and-sandal/science fiction story (Gladiators of Rome vs. The Pod People)???
Me: Final question: Any advice for aspiring writers? Mine would be "Sure you don't want to take up needlepoint?"
Steven: Final answer: Be wary of writers offering advice. There's no secret formula to writing. Study your own process and do more of what works and less of what doesn't. Turn criticism into fuel. Be ruthless with your writing time. Learn to say, "No." Be friendly. And when you're stuck and everything appears hopeless, go take a walk in nature. Thank you, Steve, for this wonderful conversation.