As a reader, finding new, talented authors can often feel like striking gold, which is precisely how I felt when I finished new author Richard E. Gropp's Bad Glass. Gropp's debut is a rare single-title speculative fiction/horror story about an amateur photographer, Dean, looking to make it big when he decides to break into the quarantined city of Spokane. The area has been plagued with a mysterious disease that's causing unusual changes in the town's residents and Dean is determined to document it, even if it means questioning his sanity. I was curious to learn more about Gropp and the story behind Bad Glass, so I went straight to the author for answers.
Bad Glass, your debut novel, won Del Rey’s 2011 Suvudu Writing Contest. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience and what it was like going from an unpublished writer to a debut author?
Winning the Suvudu Contest was a huge relief for me, actually. At that point (spring of 2011), I’d been trying to break into the publishing industry for a couple of years, but I wasn’t having any luck. I thought that all of the stuff I was working on was great, but there was always this nagging little fear in the back of my head — I’ll call it the “American Idol” fear — a fear that I was just awful, that I was completely tone deaf and just couldn’t hear it. And all of my friends and family — they were just being too polite to tell me the brutal truth. The contest helped me get beyond that.
I still worry, of course, but now I can just concentrate on telling a story, and not worry so much that I’m going painfully sharp on the high notes, or wavering in the chorus, or just generally making people cringe and shake their heads whenever I turn away. (Instead, I can worry about taking my analogies too far and making dated cultural references.)
The contest also gave me the opportunity to work with some truly gifted people in the Del Rey editorial department. I don’t think too many debut authors have a team like that behind them.
Dean, your protagonist in Bad Glass, is an aspiring photographer trying to get his big break by documenting the unusual things happening to the quarantined city of Spokane. How do you think experiencing bizarre events through the lens of a camera helps Dean cope with the horrible things happening to people?
I think that when you pick up a camera you adopt a completely different relationship to the world. Instead of truly engaging with your surroundings, you end up concentrating on this machine in your hands and the aesthetics of the scene in front of you. And you end up missing out on the truly important things, which also happen to be the scary things — genuine emotion, a human connection, a real understanding of what’s going on. In that way, photography serves as a shield, a deliberate distance that you put between yourself and the world.
So, yes, hiding behind a camera can help you cope with the horrible things in your life, but it works in the same way that denial works — it’s an effective psychological defense that really isn’t all that healthy in the long run. Your problems are still there, you’re just not facing them. And eventually, all of those bad things are going to come crashing in.
At times, I wonder if I’m not using writing in the same way. Whenever I have that thought, however, I push it out of my head and make one of my characters fall into a well.
Spokane, Washington isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when I think of spooky settings. What is it about Spokane that prompted you to set your story there?
Figuring out the right setting was probably the first great challenge I faced in writing Bad Glass.
I had a vague idea about what I wanted. I’m a Seattle native, and I wanted a distinctly Pacific Northwest type of apocalypse. Something gray and damp, with lush flora and a melancholy autumn. I wanted a city — big enough to seem vast and labyrinthine, but not so big it’d become unmanageable. With that in mind, I did some research online. I checked city size and population density; I studied maps on Google; I looked at pictures. Seattle and Portland seemed too big. Vancouver, WA seemed too small. But Eugene, OR, Olympia, WA, and Spokane seemed just about right. I planned on visiting these cities, one by one, until I found something I could work with. Luckily, Spokane was the first destination on my list.
My partner and I took a day off and drove to Spokane from Seattle. We arrived downtown on a Sunday afternoon in October and drove around for a while. We got out of the car and walked the streets, taking pictures. The entire city seemed strangely deserted. We were the only people on the streets, and even Riverfront Park was mostly empty. I really got the sense that I was in a dead city, that the apocalypse had happened and we were all alone in the world. It was exactly what I was looking for. We only spent a couple of hours there on that trip, but driving back home it really felt like we were escaping a barren planet and returning to the world …. Now, looking back, I wonder if it was just a strange fluke that we found the city so empty. Maybe there was a big football game going on somewhere, and everyone was at home glued to their TVs.
Anyway, that brief visit really nailed down the sense of place I was looking for. And it gave my writing a huge boost, momentum-wise.
The twisted creatures Dean encounters in Bad Glass are incredibly eerie. Film is generally the medium that people think of them it comes to horror. How do you think literature lends itself to eliciting fear in readers, as opposed to film or television?
That’s a very interesting question, and I’m not really sure I’m qualified to provide an answer. I’ll try – but, yeah, you probably shouldn’t take my answer as the voice of authority here. These are just things I was thinking about while writing Bad Glass.
I think the difference between horror in literature and film is the difference between a descriptive and an experiential medium. In horrific literature, I think you get authors trying to tell you why you should be scared, describing consequences and answering questions. (“You’re being chased by a serial killer, and isn’t that horrifying? He’ll kill you, it’ll hurt, and all your dreams will be extinguished. No more future. And what will that do to your family? Imagine that, internalize that, feel that fear.”) Whereas film, being a visual medium, can’t easily tell you how you should be feeling. In the type of horrific films that I find most effective, there are images and situations that disturb me deeply and I can’t really tell you why. You get things like Jacob’s Ladder, or the work of David Cronenberg or David Lynch, or even The Blair Witch Project — images and events that make you supremely uncomfortable, that tie you up in knots inside – and yet you don’t understand them, at least not on a conscious level. Maybe it resonates deeply, and you end up probing your own mind, looking for answers. Delving into something primal, a place that resists intellectual examination. And that can be a really deep, personal experience. Almost liberating.
Not that there isn’t literature that manages to do the exact same thing. I think Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves does a great job of presenting cinematic horror on the printed page.
In a genre filled with series that sometimes go on for decades, it was refreshing to read a strong standalone novel. Do you have any other plans for future books set in the same world? What can readers expect from you next?
I still think about what’s going on in Spokane (well, my version of Spokane). It’s a big place, and each of its residents seems to have their own dramas, their own stories. So, even though he doesn’t appear in the novel, I know that there’s a disgraced professional baseball player hiding out in the Gonzaga stadium, shooting endless games of H-O-R-S-E. And a serial killer stalking the streets. And a group of children living alone on the Eastside, looking for — and shunning — parents. But the story in Bad Glass is done. Maybe I’ll get back to Spokane in short stories or something, but I’ve got no more novels planned in that universe.
And, at times, that makes me feel supremely stupid! Now I’ve got to go back to square one and sell readers on a brand new premise, a brand new world. Which is daunting… But also pretty exciting.
I’m currently working on a new novel, but it’s still early days yet, so I don’t want to talk about it too much. I will say that it involves film and actors, and I’m currently rewatching all of Twin Peaks. Other than that, it’s all redacted.