Interview with M.J. Preston
Our next interview is with MJ Preston. Mark has published one novel and several short stories, and has recently completed the first draft of his second novel, due to be published later this year.
Sure, I’m a writer, artist, and amateur photographer, who like most artists, still has to have a day job. Oh, and I live in Canada, which makes me an annoyingly polite Canadian.Your novel, The Equinox, became a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Awards and was called “A solid horror novel” by a reviewer from Publishers Weekly. Can you tell us what it’s about?The Equinox is a novel about a young man who sets out on a 14 year journey to avenge the murder of his grandfather by a creature known as a skin-walker. The young man in question is a half breed Chocktee (named Daniel Blackbird) who finds himself banished from his native home after he inadvertently sets the creature free. Consequently, Daniel Blackbird is drawn to a rural town where, he believes that the creature he seeks is behind a number of killings connected to a child murderer that is in custody named Stephen Hopper.What inspired you to write The Equinox?I don’t know what inspires me other than I get ideas and if they stick around long enough they turn into stories. I suppose this particular story [quest for vengeance] might have been influenced somewhat by John Farris’ THE FURY, but as to inspiration I don’t really know. My muse calls and I answer. In the case of Equinox I started writing the book back in the 80’s and it ended up being shelved for the better part of 15 years. The original manuscript probably needed to age for that long, because it aged well and worked better in modern day.
Have you self-published or gone the traditional route?
I really hate the term self-published because it conjures up the stigma of some poor mope whose work is so bad that he (she) had to pay someone to publish it. Then of course, they end up with a couple cases of books in their basement. I like the term Indie author, it’s less self-deprecating. Ha, there’s my disclaimer. The truth is I published The Equinox as an independent after attempting to find a publisher and receiving the usual: “Sorry, not our cup of tea. No, thanks, but good luck.” After carefully weighing my options, I really had two choices. I could buckle down and keep trying to find a small press to represent me or take a chance and represent myself. I knew I had a good book, albeit one that had taken 17 years to finish, but I wanted to get it out there so it could find a readership. In 2011 I published it independently and this year a 2nd Edition was released under a small press out of New Hampshire called: Great Old Ones Publishing.
Counting Paces is really about going insane. It was written a long time ago when I was a soldier in my early 20’s. I banged it off on the same Olivetti electric typewriter I used to start The Equinox back in the 80’s. It eventually ended up in a three ring binder I kept some of my writing in and then went into a box and was forgotten. The protagonist, is a soldier named Mike Hicks. This tale is told in the first person, in which he relates to you the reader, his view on a world that is unraveling. His wife is cheating on him, his Sergeant intimidates him every morning during inspection and to offset the impending madness he counts the paces as he marches toward the unknown.
Revelation Lamb is short story that stems from a book I have yet to write called: The 4th Horseman, which is an apocalyptic tale. In Revelation Lamb, we find two Federal agents staking out a rest area on the New York Thruway as they wait for a man named John Lamb to arrive. Lamb, it seems, is intent on bringing about the end times and according to the first agent is carrying a germ agent that will do just that. But is it that black and white? I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Authors sometimes use ‘giveaways’ to help promote their books. Have you tried doing that, and if so, do you think it increased your sales?
I’m not so sure giveaways increase your sales, but they certainly up your profile and having a presence on the web is an important asset to gaining a following. Right now I have one book out there, one in prepublication and a scattering of short stories here and there. It’s tough to be prolific when you have a day job. I contract away from home and as a result I don’t find as much time to write when I am working. Since coming home and finishing the first draft of my new book, I made a conscious decision to get right to work on my third book. Over the course of about three weeks I am approximately ¼ done the third book. You can only flog the same book for so long before people get sick of hearing you’re the author of (insert novel name here).
How did you find a publisher?
Well for The Equinox it was quite by accident. I published a short in Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification and did their cover art. A relationship sort of developed from there.
You’ve had stories accepted for, and even created the cover art for two Great Old Ones Publishing anthologies. Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification, and Bugs: Tales that Slither Creep and Crawl, which is in pre-publication. What led to them asking you to create their covers?
Art has always been a big part of my writing. I do all my own cover art and I also dabble in the digital art and photography. I was approached by Philip Perron from Great Old Ones and asked if I would be interested in doing a conceptual cover based off an anthology on mummies. I was also invited to contribute a story. I agreed to do the cover art, but couldn’t promise anything in the short story department. I was focused on finishing the first draft of Acadia Event. Then one day I thought to myself, I wonder what happened to Chicago Detective Sean Woodman. Woodman was a supporting character in The Equinox. I started clacking away on the keyboard and before I knew it I had an answer. The front and back cover of Canopic Jars is actually based on the story I contributed which is called: Run-off 31. After I contributed the cover Great Old Ones stated that they were thinking about a bug anthology. I put together a couple proposals and even took a few stills of Mrs. Preston in macabre way as more of a lark and they ended up liking the piece she was shot in. In addition I contributed a tale to that one as well. The cover art on that anthology is a rendering of the short I contributed as well.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on your works? Do you have a favorite author?
I move around. I used to read a lot of Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Robert R McCammon, but I have fallen from grace as a constant reader. I try to read as much as I can, when I can’t physically read, I listen to audio books. I am a huge fan of the police procedural, but as to influence? It’s a mixed bag really. I’d say that early King, McCammon, John Skipp, but I was a voracious reader as a young person, so it’s hard to nail it down to any one or two. If you want to be a writer, read man, read a lot! In the end you’ll find your own voice. At present, I’d recommend just about anything by John Sandford or Michael Connelly.
What cultural value do you think your writing has?
Cultural? If you take my hand and follow me down the rabbit hole I promise not to let go until we are done. If you enjoyed the journey that is really it. If you’re looking for Shakespeare, Twain or even Dickens, you’ve come to the wrong place. The fore mentioned are some of the masters, and through we try to emulate them, we should accept that they were the trail blazers and we are simply following their path. I think if you’re attitude is that your writing has cultural value you need to take something in the laxative department to unburden that notion.
You’ve announced that you’ve completed the first draft of your second novel, Acadia Event. What inspired that one, and when will it be available?
Acadia was really inspired during my time in the deep north, running the world’s longest ice road known as: The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road. I signed on to drive a super b tanker from Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories to the BHP Ekati Mine which sits a little over 100 km below the Arctic Circle. A one way trip takes about 16 hours and it is a grind that lasts approximately six weeks. During that time I spent 100’s of hours in conversation with Ice Road truckers, mine personnel, workers and locals talking about this phenomena that takes place during a very narrow window every year. From that came conversations with my buddy Brad as we discussed my ideas. Pretty soon my muse took over and by the following summer the pieces started to fall into place for what will be my biggest project to date. The first draft of Acadia Event has come in at a whopping 180, 000 words. It’s a big book, but I still have a hell of a lot of work to do on it. I’m going to start a line by line edit in a few weeks and once I have vetted the first draft and I’m happy with it I will then send it out to a couple beta readers and see what they think. I would like to have this book ready to go before the fall of 2014, but that will depend on how it is published.
Which social media platforms do you use to promote your works? How important do you believe social media is to the success of published works?
I am very active in Blogging and on Facebook, as well as visiting the odd writing forum. I am at a complete loss as to the value of Twitter. I have a hard time with sending out micro-sentences and have too many other things to do rather than tweeting that I have a hang nail or whether I think rocky road ice cream rules. It may work for some, but it hasn’t helped me other than touching base with other writers. Director Kevin Smith did favorite one of my tweets, but in all honesty, it did nothing for my book sales.
Do you spend a lot of time on research for your projects? How important do you think research is for creative writing?
I do and yes I do. Research is vital in fiction, even genre writing, which is what I do mostly. I think a reader is smart enough to know when a writer is talking out their ass. I try to learn what I can about that which I am writing. For example, a lot of the mythos in The Equinox was born out research I did into the Cree people. I conferred with a psychologist. I enlisted my oldest son and brother regarding aircraft vulnerability. In the case of Acadia I applied learned facts and even with the first draft done I am consulting on technical stuff. My third book in progress is a police procedural book, so I’ve been reading up on all sorts of cool facts and immersing myself in the all aspects of crime scene investigation. Yes, my fellow writers, know what the hell you’re talking about. Research your material.
How do you develop your characters? Do you have any tips for breathing life into them?
Character development for me is like the evolution of a new friend. As I write I become more intimate with my characters. Their convictions, their passions, their fears. It really is a strange process when you think about it and anyone who doesn’t write will look at you like you’re full of beans. This might sound weird or even a little on the crazy side, but I become invested in my characters. For instance: In the Equinox there is a chapter dedicated to John and Olivia Parkins, whose 12-year old son has been brutally murdered after being molested. I explore the anguish these people are suffering and for me it is quite real. Having come from a family that lost a sibling I could understand this torment as I saw how it affected my deceased mother. I can honestly say that when I wrote that there were tears, because I was inside the heads of these people. I could readily identify the helpless agony I had had put them in. So the tip, if there is one, is to make sure you identify with your characters. If you love or hate them, that means you’re on the right track. If they are real to you, then they become real to your reader.
What is your process for expanding an idea into a story? Is it different for a novel than a short?
I hear a lot of fellow writers talk about writing. Some talk about the mechanics so much that I wonder if they actually get any writing done at all. I don’t believe in writing an outline or using some template. That may work for others, but for me it just seems like a lot of unnecessary work. The only difference between a novel and a short is that I know going in what the end result will be. Don’t ask me how I know this, I just do.
Everyone likes to talk about their muse, so I’ll give a nod to mine. He’s the one that really knows what’s going on. He’s the one that puts the magic into the creation process and he insists that I write in a very specific way. For instance: Fingers must touch the keyboard, there must be physical touch to generate the electricity. No voice to text baloney for him. Such gadgetry pisses him off and he is quick to punish by turning those wonderful ideas into a clunky mess of stuttering nonsense as it spills from your lips. Or my lips. Yeah my lips.
How do you build tension and set up for a suspenseful scene?
Generally what I do is try to live it before I write. For instance, there’s been this irritating telemarketer who… I’m just kidding. I can’t really nail down the mechanics, except to say I approach it in a number of different ways. Sometimes I build tension slowly using a method of foreplay and in other instances it’s easier to punch the reader right between the lookers and drag them into a scene. It varies for me, I have no set formula.
Do you have a routine for your writing, or do you write when you have the urge?
I can’t always write when I get the urge, because sometimes that urge comes when I’m behind the wheel of a big rig. So I make mental notes for later. Aside from my muse and his (not mine) peculiarities, it’s really about routine. I turn on the laptop, maybe turn on a bit of background music and stay the heck off the web. With all other distractions eliminated I begin. If everything is in tune, down the rabbit hole I go.
What advice can you offer to new writers?
If you love this art, as I do, keep writing. Avoid taking things personally when someone critiques you. I remember going to my first writer’s forum and being ripped to pieces by another who told me I should hang up my skates and go home, because I was never going to make the team. I almost did. The critic in question was partially right about one thing, I had a lot to learn. I still do, and so does anyone else who wants to be a story teller. By joining a writing community like WF you have already taken the first step in advancing your craft. This place is a treasure trove for the aspiring writer, from poet to author to student. I owe this forum a debt of gratitude for The Equinox’s humble success, because it was here I sought out many of the tools I needed to get that first book finished and onto the writers market.
Do you believe there is anything that people should avoid writing about?
Who am I to say? People should write about the things they want. I for one, avoid the romance novels, the sparkly vampires, but I am just one reader and if that makes you happy and you find a readership for that stuff; go for it.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers?
Yes, thank you. I appreciate those of you who have supported my craft by reading my work. I do this for you as well as myself, because without you it is just a daydream. There is more stuff coming, so stay tuned. You can visit me on my website or blog. If you like my writing please drop me a review on either Amazon or Barnes and Noble
MJ Preston published his debut horror novel: THE EQUINOX, in 2011. This original horror has received a number of awesome reviews. The Equinox also became a quarter finalist in the AMAZON Breakthrough Awards and “A solid horror novel” by a reviewer from Publishers Weekly. It also met with great enthuasism from the underground horror community. Host of the The Dark Discussions Podcast, Philip Perron said “THE EQUINOX” was “A treat to read.” and “One of the best horror novels I’ve read in the last 10 years.”
Through all of this, he remains humble and down to earth, stating: “I don’t claim to be the next Stephen King. I am just a simple storyteller. Writing offers me the ability to climb out of this life and into another. When I go down that rabbit hole and begin to formulate a story I like to think I’m taking you along for the ride.” “My neighbours think I’m sort of dark and strange,” MJ Preston declares with a devilish smile. That is because on Halloween his yard is littered with gravestones, severed limbs, chainsaw wielding maniacs and giant spiders.
An ardent fan of the horror genre he has been writing since he was a kid, but his passion is not restricted to the written word. In writing THE EQUINOX MJ Preston also felt inclined to create a life sized version of the nefarious skin-walker. So, over the course of a month and a half he went to work sculpting the 7″ bloodthirsty creature. Just in time for Halloween, he displayed it on his front lawn amid broken corn stalks and severed limbs. This caught the attention of local media and solidified his reputation of having the coolest house in town on Halloween.
From Author to Ice Road Trucker
In 2012 MJ Preston set out to run the Worlds Longest Ice Road as an Ice Road Trucker. Hauling fuel from Yellowknife in the NWT to the Ekati Diamond Mine, which sits a little over 100 miles below the Arctic Circle, he was mesmerized by the majesty of Canada’s North.
While capturing over 8000 photographs, he could feel the excited call of his muse setting his imagine on fire once again. Born from this latest adventure would be the genesis of his latest work in progress: ACADIA EVENT.
“Having run two seasons as a Ice Trucker has given me the ability to capture the many angles of Canada’s North. I am having a great time with the new book and I am confident that once it is done so will you.”
ACADIA EVENT is forecasted for release in late 2014.
Along with writing, MJ Preston is also an artist using the computer as his canvas and creating digital art that is.. You guessed it, somewhat on the macabre side. From floating mystical orbs to intestinal eating ghouls, MJ Preston wields the virtual paintbrush of a proverbial madman.
He states, “I like to look at the darker side of human nature, pick at the things that bother us and see what lies beneath the surface.”
So there you have it! A thumbnail sketch of MJ Preston, Author and Artist at Large.
If you have any questions for Mark, about his books or writing in general, please do not hesitate to ask.
About the author
M.J. Preston’s debut novel: THE EQUINOX, published in 2012, was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Awards and rated a solid straight horror novel by a reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly. His second novel: ACADIA EVENT, published in 2015, was inspired by his time running the world longest ice road, as an ice road trucker, in the Canada’s Northwest Territories. His third novel: Highwayman, the first of a two-part thriller, is forecast to be published in 2017. He resides in Alberta, Canada with his wife, Stormy and pet beagles, Milo and Jake.