Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Steve Zell, the author of True Creature.
FQ: You have several powerful female characters in True Creature – is it easy for you to get inside their heads and their thinking processes?
ZELL: Boys like myself growing up Catholic in the 60s knew absolutely nothing useful about females except that it was a sin to let your mind wander about them... As warping as growing up that way was, it gave me a very strong desire to listen and learn and find some common ground there. I think you learn how connected we all are when you find yourself consoling someone you’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with whose heart has just been broken by an idiot – and you suddenly realize your heart is now being broken by an idiot too...and you’re the biggest idiot of all for putting yourself in that position. I guess it comes down to the fact we’re all idiots in one way or another. At times we’re all heroic too. That partly answers one of your later questions – if there’s any character in True Creature I see myself in – and the truth is, good, evil, male or female, brave or cowardly, I really have something in common with all of them.
FQ: You feature some funny scenes with adolescent love (and lust) gone wrong. How much humor do you think can safely be mixed with horror?
ZELL: Hah! Adolescent love can be a horror story on its own. As far as the mixture of horror and humor goes in my writing, there was a glut on the bully market when I was a kid. I eventually developed two survival techniques – one was a fast straight punch, the other was humor. I think, in some of the most horrific situations – having a sense of humor is the one thing that will keep you sane – it’s also a very powerful weapon. I think humor gives the reader a chance to recover, it can also make the characters more human and even underscore their terror. But you do have to be careful where and when you use it, otherwise you can diffuse the situation, which isn’t something you want to do. If the truly “horrific” element you’ve just written evokes a truly funny image...you may need to rethink it and rewrite it.
Sara uses humor to shield herself from the very real horror of her job as a medical examiner. And, without giving too much away, I think one of the most horrific scenes in True Creature is one you don’t actually see. Deanne knows what’s going on, she hears it, smells it, there’s even a very detached running commentary by the killer throughout it. There is some very dark humor in all of that, and I think the little bit Deanne pulls from her seemingly hopeless situation keeps her sane.
FQ: You mention Wallace and Ladmo, the TV characters, numerous times in this book. Can you comment on their place in your childhood and in Arizona culture?
ZELL: Oh man. Did I EVER look forward to that show after school! We all did. We probably give folks credit for being “ahead of their time” too often, but Wallace and Ladmo really were. It was a “cartoon show” but the cartoons weren’t the draw – the reason for watching were the skits between the cartoons, and the humor was funnier the more you thought about it. Sure, they had slapstick elements, but they were a little more like Fractured Fairy Tales from Rocky and His Friends (The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) – they challenged your ideas about the world (their bizarre version of The Civil War which I believe they filmed mostly at Papago Park, comes to mind). Pat McMahon, a local newsman, appeared as various characters – his spoiled rich kid, Gerald, was one of the staples of the show, but he also played a clown who hated kids and smoked – and THAT was hilarious, and this was the 60s! Wallace and Ladmo often appeared live around town – notably at our frighteningly old-west-themed park, Legend City, which I mention in True Creature, but they could be anywhere. They appeared at a Der Wienerschnitzel (remember those? Yes – Phoenix was a testing ground for the finest of fast-foods) near our house and I went to see them. I’ll never forget how thrilled I was to win a giant, foot-long, Baby Ruth bar and have Ladmo himself call me by name and congratulate me. They were rock stars.
FQ: Is there a particular political model for Todd Worwick?
ZELL: As a Catholic boy, John F. Kennedy was a god. I was so affected by his assassination that I wrote that date on all my school papers for several years. But I was a little kid and back then they kept the sexual “exploits” secret. It was a big disappointment for me finding out just how “human” he was. As it became more obvious that sexual attraction had as much to do with power and fame in all aspects of life whether it was the high-school athlete, the popular cheerleader, teachers, priests, the bad-boy in the movies, politicians, etc., I came to realize it’s part of the fabric of things. The fact Congress has a fund set up specifically to protect its members from sex-abuse scandals and it’s widely used should be front page news but it isn’t. Male or female, power games are a sometimes evil but often simply intoxicating part of many human relationships. Todd borrows from a lot of folks I’ve known or know of. On the surface, he’s one of those affable jerks we all know who take advantage of their power and good looks when they can – but he’s caused, and suffered, real tragedy because of it.
FQ: Do you ever “see” yourself as one of your characters, major or minor? If so, who would that be in True Creature?
ZELL: I mentioned earlier there’s some part of me in everyone in True Creature. Donovan probably has the most – but, hey, there’s a nerdy part of me in Sara too – and quite a bit of my own regret and need for vengeance carried by Barney and Tahoma.
FQ: Can you say a bit about your central theme – water – and its meaning for the state of Arizona? Does it still loom large as an issue there as it clearly did in the 1960s in True Creature?
ZELL: Phoenix, and southern Arizona in general, is as much a manufactured environment now as it was in the 60s or as the first outpost on Mars will be. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, or Tucson – where I went to college and is a place I really, really love. Arizonans will always need to redirect water to survive. But that isn’t such an unusual situation, California, where I lived for twenty-odd years, is technically a desert too. Mono Lake has been drained to the point where it’s practically gone. I think Phoenicians are less aware of the tenuous situation they live in now than they once were precisely because of the construction of the Central Arizona Water Project which is the backdrop of True Creature. Many waterways are “permanently” in place now or as permanently in place as anything can be in the desert. You still hear arguments about how much water passing through or around the state belongs to Arizona. Living in Oregon now (and it’s raining as I write this) I still worry about water reserves. Forest fires are a huge problem here...we also have volcanoes. Man...scary stuff everywhere...
FQ: You’ve found a comfortable niche by following the old rule, “write about what you know.” Could you envision leaving that literary comfort zone for another locale entirely?
ZELL: I’ve been lucky enough to be many different things in my life and I want to be more. I owe a lot to the University of Arizona for putting me on the Interdisciplinary Studies path, or recognizing that was where I needed to be! True Creature is a detective novel at its heart which is a little bit of a departure for me, and I love doing research. The LA Crime Lab has Forensic Pathology classes for the “not-so-faint-of-heart” which I’ve taken advantage of. But...I know that isn’t what you mean :). I likely will go in a completely different direction at some point, I really love exploring people – their minds and their hearts. The great thing about supernatural suspense is that I can place people somewhere they’re forced to think of something bigger than themselves – and really explore their minds and hearts. We’ll see...
FQ: Your first book, WiZrD, originally published in the 90s, and then re-released as an ebook several years ago, is enjoying a renewed life, having recently won the “Best of Backlist” award in the Feathered Quill Book Awards. So many large publishers set aside books older than a year, but as a small, independent publisher, you’re able to bring the book back to the reading public. Do you think it’s time for large publishers to re-visit how they handle backlist titles?
ZELL: That is a really great question and I think it’s part of a broader problem. Like every other entertainment form, the landscape and business model is changing for publishing and traditional houses haven’t embraced that. They need to be working with the indies to find a way to get those backlists, and publishing in general, to work better for everyone involved – including the reader. When e-books began becoming popular St. Martin’s Press had already become part of Macmillan and I couldn’t even find a phone number there. Everyone I knew from the WiZrD days was gone – including my editor, Reagan Arthur, whom I love, who had moved on to Little Brown. So...I published WiZrD on the Kindle myself. I can’t say I recommend that, but you have to be bold and that did get Macmillan’s attention; we signed a new contract, and they re-published it for the Kindle and other e-books.
Good books are good books – even if they didn’t receive mass attention when they first came out because they didn’t have the name-recognition and budgets to be mass-marketed back then.
I thank Feathered Quill for the Best of Backlist category in their book awards for the renewed interest in WiZrD! The fact that WiZrD ties into True Creature and to Running Cold makes it all the better!