Sunday, 25 October 2015

'Bringing the Apocalypse' - an interview with Chris Tetreault-Blay

Hi Chris! Thank you for inviting me to be part of your blog tour for ‘Acolyte’. Very excited about it and an honour, especially as I’m the closing act! Hopefully these questions will do you and your fantastic novel justice.

So, without further ado…‘Acolyte’; Part One in the Wildermoor Apocalypse Trilogy? Tell us a little about it?

In a nutshell, ‘Acolyte’ is the beginning of an apocalyptic horror series.  It is set in a remote moorland county, independent from any neighbouring towns or cities, whose very existence is threatened by an ancient evil that was raised nearly 350 years before.  The story moves between the 1680s through to more present 2002 and finally up to 2012.  The horrors that befall this sleepy community centre around a The Council of Eternal Light (a group led by a renegade priest) and a mysterious phantom known as The Reaper.

What was the inspiration?

I became engrossed in different theories regarding the apocalypse; religious, mythical, spiritual and scientific.  In particular, the Mayan prophecy that 21st December 2012 would signal the end of the world.  When that date came and went without much fanfare, an idea formed in my mind – what if something had happened that had started the apocalypse, but somewhere so small that we may not even know it existed, that anything had even happened? 

That is where I started to create Wildermoor; a place that would succumb to, essentially, a man-made end.  I had three short stories on the go at the time – a ghost story, a demon/monster tale and an alien abduction story.  Once I found one thread that could tie them all together, ‘The Wildermoor Apocalypse’ was born (minus the aliens though, I’m afraid).

Writing a horror novel puts in in the mix with some of the greats; Stephen King, James Herbert, Shaun Hutson. How did you go about crafting a story that would stand out from the rest?

All I really tried to do was to take the idea of the apocalypse and put a different spin on how it could occur.  What about if there was another way that we could bring forth our own demise?  A harrowing thought, but one that might not be out of the realms of possibility. After all, we will ultimately be held responsible for the death of our world.  What I had noticed, however, was that there hadn’t been as many books that had given a biblical/mythical explanation compared to those that had chosen to use zombies, pandemics, nuclear warfare or climate change as the catalyst.  Once this idea had formed, I couldn’t shake it and began working backwards in typical ‘top-down’ fashion, writing the backstory in reverse.  By doing this, I was able to continue building layers underneath as I wrote, to bring Wildermoor and the characters to life. 

Using a religious angle provided me with a plethora of possibilities in terms of the characters, history, motives and ultimately providing the model for the main antagonist – the legendary Grim Reaper.  One of my favourite moments in recent movie history was the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader in Revenge of The Sith and I wanted to find a way of re-enacting the emotion and drama of a normal man descending into something that personifies evil, and telling a very human side to the legend of The Reaper.

‘Acolyte’ has a bit of a contemporary Hammer horror feel to me (that may just be my interpretation!). Was there anything you felt you wanted the reader to particularly feel when reading it or did you simply just want them to be given a good fright and a few chills?

I wanted the reader to be able to always be asking questions and to be kept guessing.  One thing I love about a lot of horror fiction, especially James Herbert, is when the story is constantly building but the ending is not clear, or if the ending is simply a surprise.  I have yet to properly predict a James Herbert ending and when it happens, it hits you with something so simple yet powerful.  Mix in with that a bit of blood and gore and I think you have the perfect match.

I also felt a little of The Omen but in reverse during the exchange between Colin and Father Michael’s at the beginning. This time, it was the priest who was initially unengaged and Dexler’s character frantic whereas in The Omen it is the other way round between the priest (Patrick Trougton) and the Gregory Peck’s character. It also works to immediately throw the reader into an uncomfortable situation to read and be part of. Was that intentional?

In a way, I guess it was.  When I first wrote Acolyte, the first chapter with Father Michaels and Dexler didn’t exist; the story began with Franklin James’ search for his daughter.  This first section was actually the final part of the book that I wrote.  When I decided to add it in, I wanted Acolyte to have a beginning that would help the book hit the ground running, get the readers thinking right from the start.  The fact that the story then cuts to 300 years in the past, I hoped would help build the suspense.  I believe that leaving gaps in the story here and there spurs the reader’s imagination so much more than if you simply described everything that happened in between the two events and I love that.

Did the spanning of three different timelines during the course of the narrative prove challenging in anyway?

Very much so, as throughout the entire writing process I had to make sure that all of the time zones linked together perfectly.  I would come up with an idea then have to find some way to make that relevant to 300 years before or after it.  Sometimes this was not successful and I had to go back to the drawing board again.  It was not my intention for the story to flip back and forth between the times, I started off by writing all of the 1680s material first with the view of then having the second part of the book set in 2002.  The further I delved into the story, I started to see links between the two parts and began to experiment with weaving them together.  I had always played Acolyte out in my mind as a TV series, where every ‘time change’ or new chapter signified the end of an episode (or even an ad break).

How do you create your characters? Was the protagonist ‘Dexler’ closely named after the esteemed crime writer Colin Dexter or was that a coincidence?

I have no real scientific process for devising my characters; a lot of the time they just appear in my mind, or they are based on people I know or have seen on TV or film.  Most of the time, I start with just one central character in a scene and the others just appear to me as I am writing, their appearances becoming stronger as I describe what’s going on.  Sometimes characters will even surprise myself by becoming more prominent and take over the scene I am writing.  For example, Stamwell was only meant to have a bit-part in the book, playing an Igor-type character to William Archibald’s Dr. Frankenstein but I just couldn’t keep him in the background.
As far as Colin Dexler goes, his naming is purely coincidental.  The name Dexler is based on a Dexter, however, but that of the TV-series serial killer, rather than the crime writer.  He is also largely based on a real person, in terms of his appearance and mannerisms.  Whilst writing much of Acolyte in my car, the same guy used to walk past me every day and just stop and stare in through the window.  I thought him to be quite strange and creepy but he got me thinking of a character that was largely anti-social, came from a bad background and suffered his own demons which no-one else understood.  I often saw him talking to himself too, but wondered if what he was saying was making perfect sense to him if not the people who saw him.  He looked like a Colin too, which sealed the name for me in the end.
The first scenes of Dexler in the psychiatrists office, through to him committing his next (and final) crime were in fact meant for my first short story.
Spookily, I never saw the guy again after I wrote Dexler’s last scene in Acolyte and have always believed that he – whoever he is – might have been sent to just get the ideas flowing which made up this book.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing ‘Acolyte’ to life?

I would say that research featured very heavily in the creation of Acolyte, and took quite a lot of my time. I began researching a place in Newton Abbot known as Devil’s Pit as I thought it was a great setting to use for a short story I was trying to write called ‘The Pit of Harper Falls.’  This led to the historical events references throughout Acolyte – such as the pit being used for rituals and blessings, the government introducing their own ‘new religion’ and driving out priests who refused to adopt it – as they are all based on events that occurred in the late 1600s.  I wanted to include these details so that the scenes I set held some historical credibility, whilst also trying to make them as original as I could.
In terms of the beast that The Council would bring to life, I wanted to use something different than just the Devil, a demon or a ghost.  Instead I wanted something that, again, had biblical relevance but that most people may not be familiar with, and I had a blast researching mythical and biblical creatures and their roles within religion, whilst also trying to adapt these to create a new threat which could be linked with the apocalypse.  I was constantly spinning plates, so to speak, to try and get all of these elements to interact with each other throughout the story.
Later in the process, I also needed to try and understand the ‘lethal injection’; what it was made up of, how it was administered and the physiological effects on the patient, in order to make that scene as realistic as I could.  Of course, as is my style, I wanted to put my own spin on it whilst also trying to retain some scientific grounding.
The rest of the time, I was battling to remain focused on the entire story of The Wildermoor Apocalypse and the role Acolyte would play within the trilogy as a whole, as well as keeping watch on all of the events going on within that one book and ensuring I kept it all together.  With so many things going on and flipping back and forth between times, I must admit that I had moments of confusion where I had to step back and try to get my head around it all.
A personal challenge I set myself, to give some kind of structure as well as make things a little more fun, was to write Acolyte during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), meaning I had a target of 50,000 words to achieve within the month (just over 1,600 a day).  At the time, this was the only way I was able to stay focused and stick to a plan, as my writer style is very much that of a typical ‘pantser’.

So, ‘The Sowing Season’! Even the title sounds terrifying as it has so many implications.  What can you tell us about the second book in the trilogy?

Without giving too much away, ‘Season’ will concentrate more on the Reaper and The Council as they build their army, preparing for the end of days that they are planning to inflict.  I am actually approaching the half-way mark in writing this book and am a little in love with the story, I must admit.  I’m so proud of how it is developing thus far.

I can also say that ‘Season’ does not hold back – it hits the ground running possibly harder than Acolyte did and will be a somewhat darker read.  This will be the point where the horrors start to become more real.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?

I wrote Acolyte primarily using the free time I had before or at work; either in the half an hour I usually have after getting to Exeter (before I start work) and also during my lunch break. This was unintentional the first time around as I was merely using any spare time I had to write and to see what would develop (I did not start with the intention of writing a novel at all), but for ‘Season’ I am now actively making sure I can write at these times of day.

I find that in the mornings I wake up with fresh ideas bubbling away and my twenty-minute commute helps to shape these so that I have something to work with – ideas to run with – when I start writing.

Having a wife and two young children, I try my best to reserve my time for them during evenings and weekends.  It’s vital to keep both parts of your life balances, I believe, if this is something that you are planning to do.

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

I mainly just start writing and let the story take me away with it.  There are certain key events or ideas that I know I would like to include but the structure for my work is so flimsy at times that it can change shape and direction in the middle of writing a sentence.  For some people, having this kind of approach may not work but what I love about it is that if I tried, I probably wouldn’t be able to replicate a lot of what I write at another time.  It ensures that the whole writing process remains fresh and exciting for me.

Was the idea always for a trilogy?

Right at the beginning, I don’t think it was.  I came up with the idea of The Wildermoor Apocalypse as a whole first then, as I got more and more ideas come together, I knew there would be limitations with keeping it to just one book.  I suppose as the ideas were forming from three separate short stories I was working on, it naturally leant itself to each story being expanded into a book of it’s own.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I’m learning to trust my instincts more, for sure.  At the very start, I would chase away a lot of the ideas I had by telling myself that they were silly, non-sensical and a little pointless.  But now, if I have one small crazy idea, it seems to hatch into many more and eventually I can start to see them all come together to form one big picture.

Which part (if any) was the hardest part to write?
Without a doubt it would have to be the scene later in the book with Truman and Stamford in the cell.  This was the first scene I wrote after writing during NaNoWriMo last year (after I believed I had already finished the book).  I knew exactly where I wanted the scene to go but could not seem to write my way out of it.  The story just kept growing and growing, and it was the one chapter in the book I was most nervous about when I submitted to the publisher.  I thought that they would find it too long and irrelevant.  Thankfully, they did not ask me to make any changes at all.

And the easiest?

The first scene in which we meet Franklin James and Edward Childs, near the beginning of the book.  At this point, writing a novel was not my intention.  I had a couple of ideas and was just experimenting to see how well I could write a story, really.  There was no pressure at all and I just started writing what came into my head.  I was – and still am – very proud of that part.

Who are your favorite authors/books?

James Herbert is my favourite.  It’s funny really because my wife tried in vain to get me to read his books ten years ago but I stubbornly declined.  I gave in a couple of years ago and read ‘Others’ and was blown away.  It left me with chills and was the first book that I felt a sense of mourning for when I finished.  I believe that Herbert is the biggest influence on my writing style and ideas to date. My absolute favourte of his books so far is ‘Ghosts of Sleath’.

I am also a big fan of Dean Koontz.  I have read all (except the most recent) of the ‘Odd Thomas’ series, which were the first books I read that were written from a first-person narrative.  I am trying to adopt that style somewhat with parts of ‘Season’ at the moment.

Others include H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe; I would love to emulate their styles in some of my short fiction and come up with something as legendary as just one of theirs one day

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Ed Kowalczyk, the former lead singer of my favourite band ‘Live’.  The guy is my biggest hero and the person who inspired me to first start trying my hand at songwriting (my earliest writing attempts).  His music has always been there for me at crucial points in my life (leaving home for university and during my first year there, his second solo album was also what I was listening to when my wife and I found out she was pregnant). It would be amazing to have the opportunity to thank him for that and to find out more about what inspires him.

If you could meet any of your own characters, who would it be?

It would probably be Colin Dexler, as he is one of the most complex and misunderstood characters in the book.  I found his scenes amongst the most compelling and enjoyable ones to write as I felt I didn’t understand him fully myself and could have taken his character in any direction, but his scenes pretty much led me on the journey rather than the other way around.

And do you have a favourite character in ’Acolyte?

It has to be Truman Darke, he was the first character I created before having much of a story.  He was initially meant to be a Fox Mulder-type character but evolved into something much more than just a simple police detective. He has a past, just like everyone else, but not even he knows what it is.  Truman is, in my opinion, the most important character in the story so far.

If you were going to go out of your comfort zone, what genre would you like to try?

I would probably say I would like to try my hand at a children’s book.  I love reading to my two and sometimes think that, although the stories may seem simple on the surface, the children’s market is one of the hardest to master. Kids can be the harshest critics too.  It would be a touch but very rewarding challenge, for sure.

You originally had your book with Britain’s Next Bestseller but only closely missed out on a publishing deal with them. How did Bloodhound Books arrive into the picture? Did you approach them?

I had actually submitted Acolyte to Bloodhound before trying BNBS and they had told me that they would be interested in taking it on.  By this point, however, I had also started the BNBS ball rolling and decided to give the campaign with them a go first.  I contacted Bloodhound again after the end of my campaign and asked if they would still consider Acolyte and, luckily for me, they did.  Apart from BNBS, Bloodhound are the first and only publisher to have received Acolyte so I am very thankful to them for taking a chance on me.

Fourteen five star reviews on Amazon; extremely positive reviews by other bloggers and book review sites. How does it make you feel that you seem to have hit a chord for lovers of horror books out there?

It feels amazing. I wasn’t sure how well Acolyte would be received; I had doubts (as I’m sure every author does) that anyone would like it or understand it, so I have been blown away by the response so far.  As a fan of horror fiction and film myself, I know how hard it is to please fans of the genre so consider it a big achievement.

Do you have any advice for other writers who may be starting out?

I know it sounds cheesy but believe in yourself and your work; that is pretty much the most important thing you need.  If you believe that what you are writing can make an impact with someone, somewhere, then it is worth doing.  I would also say that, when submitting to publishers, try and target those who specialize in your genre, especially if it is a niche market.  That way you know it’ll fall into the hands of those who will appreciate and understand your work and will know how best to promote it.

And after ‘The Sowing Season’? Straight into the next book in the trilogy or something else?
I think it will be straight into the third and final instalment, yes.  The ideas are just there at the moment and I wouldn’t want to lose the momentum I will have built with Acolyte and Season.  I would still like to work on more short stories and one day be able to release them as a collection, but we will see what happens there.

Do you have any special message you would like to say to your readers?
Just to say thank you so much to those who have bought, read, shared and reviewed Acolyte so far.  It is this kind of response that every writer needs and dreams of, especially with their debut novel.  I hope that I can repay your support with ‘The Sowing Season’ and that it’ll be a story that you enjoy just as much, if not more.
To those yet to give Acolyte a go, I hope you don’t regret your visit to Wildermoor.  Hell, you may not even want to leave…!

And to finish off…
1.     Favourite movie? ‘The Crow’.
2.     Favourite colour? Red.
3.     Favourite song? ‘Spanish Train’ by Chris De Burgh (not many people’s popular choice but his early stuff told some fantastic stories).
4.     Favourite food? Chocolate – or it was until I recently discovered I’m now allergic (!)
5.     Favourite Superhero? Batman
6.     Favourite Doctor (as in Doctor Who though you can go all House if you wish!)? David Tennant
7.     Favourite drink? Besides water, it would have to be Maker’s Mark bourbon.
8.     Favourite TV show? Prison Break.
9.     Favourite place? Lake Bled, Slovenia – possibly most beautiful place I have visited.

10.  Favourite word (swear or otherwise!)? Avaricious (he says with a sickening grin…)

   I have to extent a huge thank you to Chris for taking the time to chat to me and for sharing his thoughts on writing with us in a truly excellent interview. Acolyte is available on here and is generating some excellent reviews. A fantastic purchase for Halloween and one not to be missed!!!

  Chris originally hailed from Basingstoke but moved to sunny Devon after gratuating from Staffordshire University in 2005. He lives in Newton Abbot with his wife and twin children, and currently works as a logistics supervisor. 

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