Stephen M Irwin Talks The Dead Path, the Green Man, and Spiders!
On October 5, 2010, Doubleday will be releasing one of THE scariest books I have had the privilege of reading so far this year. The book, The Dead Path, is already available in the UK (under the title The Darkening) and Australia. Dread Central recently had the great good fortune to speak with the author about his first book (this guy comes out swinging!), and as is almost always the case with Aussies, he was gracious, hilarious and someone whose future works I look forward to reading.
I'm pleased to introduce Stephen M. Irwin
DC: Hello, Stephen, and thank you for taking time to talk to us about your new (and VERY frightening) first novel, The Dead Path. How about getting the basics out of the way first: You were born and still live in Brisbane, Australia. You have a degree from the Queensland College of Art in Film Production, which led to a career in restaurant and handyman work (temporarily), you are a "lousy swimmer" as well as an "outstandingly poor cricket player" and you have also been an actor Down Under. Anything you would like to add to this?
Stephen Irwin: Thank you for inviting me into Dread Central – I love what you’ve done with the place. The punji stick bathroom scales are a curious touch. Yes, I was born in Brisbane and still live here. I am able to travel overseas fairly regularly, but there really is no place like home; the summers are hot, but the winters are gorgeous. And guilty as charged: I have tertiary qualifications (n.b. college degree) in filmmaking, something that I still really enjoy doing. I’ve been fortunate enough to make some short films that have garnered some nice awards here and overseas. Right now I’m on a writing team for an upcoming Australian TV crime drama, and nice people also pay me to write screenplays for them so some lessons from film school must have stuck in my head.
Before I became competent enough to make a full-time living from writing, I did a heap of odd jobs from roadie with rock 'n roll shows to drinks waiting (n.b. bartender) to handyman work – so now I can set up your sound system, fix you a Tom Collins and unblock your toilet in one friendly visit. Acting is good fun; I have had bit parts in one American and some Australian TV shows and TV ads – it’s always a nice change to be on the other side of the camera.
Rubbish swimmer, and let’s not talk about the cricket. I’m a passable illustrator and am not too bad at skiing.
DC: How did The Dead Path come into being? There have been comparisons to Stephen King's IT, but The Dead Path definitely has its own creepy feel and makes use of the Australian bush in ways I never would have imagined. Or are the woods which so haunt this book be considered "the bush"?
SI: The Dead Path certainly has an Australian setting, though I hope the story itself will engage people whether they live in Brisbane or Boston or Bonn. I hope that I know my corner of the world as well as Mr. King knows Maine, and I doubly hope this knowledge shows in the book. Australia’s a big country with landscapes that range from snow-topped mountains to tropical coasts to vast deserts, and our flora is just as diverse from desert scrub to eucalypt forests, marshlands to rainforests. Brisbane is sub-tropical, and the natural bushland in this part of Australia includes some dense rainforests. These have enormous old trees growing from a dank forest floor (which very little sunlight reaches) up to a closed canopy, creating a dark, claustrophobic setting for some spooky things to happen in.
DC: How did it feel when you read reviews that compared The Dead Path to Stephen King's IT? That HAD to be exciting.
SI: IT remains one of the genre’s seminal books; to even be mentioned in the same paragraph is an honour. It is always a total thrill when a reviewer or reader compares The Dead Path favourably with works by acknowledged masters like Messrs. King, Herbert and Straub. If a reader finishes page 400 and feels he or she gone on a ride as scary as IT … well, I couldn’t be more delighted. Something Mr. King is quite brilliant at (aside from creating terrifying suspense) is painting very believable characters, and I really hope that comparisons with Mr. King also mean people are enjoying The Dead Path for its characters as well as its chills. I had a great time creating Nicholas Close and the other characters in the book, and I hope that shows on the page.
DC: How would you sum up the plot of The Dead Path for people who are curious about it?
SI: It’s about a guy named Nicholas Close. When Nicholas was a boy, he and his best friend Tristram found a mutilated bird – a talisman, really – near heavily treed woods in their home suburb. Tristram was murdered soon after. Now returned home as a grown man, Nicholas is disturbed to see that those brooding woods are still there and that they still aren’t safe for him … and he uncovers that something within them claimed not just Tristram but many other innocent lives ... and now wants Nicholas.
DC: The unique gift Nicholas Close has for seeing how people die, over and over - where did that come from? I don't think I've ever come across that particular "gift" before in similar horror novels.
SI: That’s fabulous! I’d hoped that the macabre ‘loops’ that poor Nick sees – ghosts caught in ever-repeating replays of their last few living moments – was something unique. I don’t know if you’ve ever passed a spot where you know someone has died – maybe one of those roadside crosses or bunches of flowers that mark where a motorist or motorcyclist has come to grief – and said to yourself: 'I wonder if there is anything left of them there that I can’t quite see?' As soon as I asked myself that, Nicholas’s unwelcome 'gift' came into being pretty much fully formed. Being assaulted by the sights of all these tortured, dead people drives Nicholas to the end of his tether … so when the real nasty business in the book starts, he is really wondering if he’s slipped over into madness.
DC: What is the significance of the spiders other than the fact that most people are afraid of them and Australia has some of THE deadliest ones on earth?
SI: I hate the buggers, always have, always will. The old axiom says ‘write what you know’, and I know I still get the heebies when a big, hairy Huntsman spider crawls silently over the ceiling above my bed. We have some pretty nasty spiders here in Oz; in my neck of the woods we have Redbacks, which are members of the widow family, and their bites can make an adult really sick. I am far from the first author to know that lots of us instinctively loathe the eight-legged creepers, and tourists to Australia often ask about our venomous wildlife. So I thought I might kind of exploit that a little … But one very important thing which sprang from the choice to use spider imagery was the formation of the novel’s antagonist, her nature and her modus. She shares more than a few arachnid traits, including patience and deadliness, and being able to follow that thematically helped (I think) to make her quite menacing.
DC: I was thrilled when I received my copy of The Dead Path, which is not due to be released in the US until October. And I was even more excited to see it was an Australian horror novel. There just don't seem to be that many Aussie horror writers lately. Do you have an opinion or theory as to why that might be? I have been to Australia three times, and it has some very creepy areas - Hanging Rock in Victoria being one. There should be LOTS of Aussie horror novels being published.
SI: Australia is a small country, population-wise. Compared to big-selling genres like crime, traditional horror remains a bit of a niche market here at home. Hachette Australia were wonderful taking a gamble on a new author in the horror genre, and I’m absolutely thrilled that the book is now being read around the world as well as at home. There are a number of very gifted Australian authors working in the genre, and I hope that our little successes will attract more Aussies to both read and write homegrown horror. Ultimately, though, I didn’t write The Dead Path just for an Australian readership, and I can’t wait to hear what US readers make of the book; I am sure they’ll find it surprisingly accessible. Australia might lack old cities, but it has a rich culture dating back forty thousand years and landscapes that are, as you suggest, really haunting. Europeans established settlements here ostensibly to get rid of criminals so our modern Australia is one born of drama and heartache. It’s a tough and beautiful landscape with enormous potential for horror writers to mine and for readers to immerse themselves in.
DC: So many writers, in all genres, struggle to get their books published in any format they can (e-books, self-publishing, etc.). How hard or easy was it for you to get The Dead Path sold to not only a big Australian publishing house but then sold to major US and British publishers?
SI: Coming from a film background, I was blissfully ignorant of how tough the publishing world is. I had a three-month window between jobs and thought: I’ll write a novel! When it was drafted, I realised that I had no idea what to do next. I guess I had enough savvy from working in the arts to know that an advocate is a handy thing to have, and I was lucky enough to be put in touch with (I think) Australia’s best literary agent. She read the manuscript, agreed to represent it, and she put it in front of exactly the right people at Hachette Australia. Hachette has worked hard and connected the book with other houses like Sphere in the UK, China Citic Press in China, and Doubleday in the US, and my agent has worked marvelous magic behind the scenes, including a deal with Blanvalet to publish the book in Germany. For me, the hard work was all the short story and screenplay writing that gave me enough understanding of story to write a novel of sufficient quality to attract a brilliant agent; the rest of the hard work was done by her and the publishers. Another fantastic piece of news was learning that The Dead Path was to become an audio book available through Bolinda and Audible; it is at once bizarre and wonderful to hear words I only ever heard in my own head being read aloud by a great voice actor. It all makes me feel very fortunate.
DC: There are strong elements of dark fairy tales in The Dead Path. That is a tricky rope to walk, horror and dark "fantasy" (if that's how you would describe the fairy tale elements in the book). Did you already know you were going to have that in the story before you wrote it or did it just creep its way into the plot as you were writing? Particularly the Green Man legend.
SI: When I set out to write the book, I had only two firm rails for the story to run along: I wanted to write a ghost story, and I wanted to set it in my home town (figuring that if I did that, at least the setting will feel real to readers). But as I began to think about plot, I realised something was still missing from the mix but didn’t quite know what. I have been a big fan of the darkly fantastic since reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as a boy, and I guess some lessons from that (reinforced when reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an adolescent) stuck in my grey matter. Small things can gain great weight and power if they are backed up by legend (real or invented). So I started doing what for me is one of the most pleasurable parts of the writing process: bumbling. Idling my way through books and across the Internet, picking up interesting and shiny gewgaws like a bowerbird. And it was on one of these hunts that I found a real treasure. It was a photo from the medieval Bamberg Cathedral in Germany. The image was of a carved stone corbel, or shelf bracket; it was shaped into the likeness of the Green Man, or Jack o’ the Green: a human-like face with foliage springing from its mouth and nostrils. As soon as I saw that inhuman face, I knew I had the last major ingredient I needed for The Dead Path. Bringing the mythology of the Green Man – the forest spirit who dies each winter and is reborn each spring – into the present opened up a wonderful world of magic and runes that allowed me to put Nicholas Close in intriguing danger.
DC: I read that you are already working on your second novel. May we hope that it will also be a horror novel, set in Oz? Can you give us any nuggets about what your next book will be about?
SI: Like The Dead Path, this is a supernatural thriller, although it is even more strongly a crime noir novel. It’s set again in Australia, and the ghosts in this book have an even stronger presence in everyone’s lives. In efforts to rid themselves of these hauntings, a certain group of people are driven to commit very dark deeds that might be opening new doors to the spirit world. The protagonist is an unwilling cop who is avoiding coming to terms with his own ‘ghosts’ when he is forced to investigate these hideous and dangerous crimes.
DC: Have there been any rumblings from Hollywood or the Australian Film Council about optioning the book to be made into a film (I think Guy Pearce would make an amazing Nicholas Close)?
SI: You know, I’d love to see this book as a film (and not just for the money). It’s a visual and, in its own way, pretty contained story so I think it would be quite achievable. However, I think it would take a budget beyond that able to be raised by most Australian producers (our feature film budgets tend to run $5m or under); but it would be fabulous to see if the US release means the book finds its way into the hands of a reader for a major studio. Guy Pearce is a national treasure, for sure, and I should try and tie the book to a rock and chuck it over his fence – though with my shameful cricket arm, I’d probably scone the poor fellow and end up writing my future novels from prison, Cervantes-style.
DC: I noticed in my copy of The Dead Path, on the copyright page, that the book had been published in a "different form" in Australia. I have since acquired an Aussie copy of the book but haven't read it yet. Why would changes be made when a book is published in another country. This also happened with Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden. And do the changes made to your book have any effect on the overall story?
SI: Kate is a lovely person and a truly gifted author (she and her family live just a few miles from me), but I haven’t spoken with her about changes she made to her books for different territories. Every publisher takes a risk bringing a new book into the ‘family’ so I think it is fair that they have opportunity to raise with the author any issues they have about what readership in their country are looking for. Ultimately, publishers and authors alike have the same goal: to get books in front of readers’ eyes, and making small changes to help facilitate that is something to be expected. I had a delightful time working with Doubleday revisiting The Dead Path in advance of its US publication – one hopefully hones one’s skills as time goes on, and this small polish gave me a chance to make a few little changes to the manuscript. Doubleday was 100% supportive of keeping the book’s Australian setting and vernacular, but we Aussies have a habit of shortening names and nouns and then adding an ‘o’ to the end (we call a liquor store a ‘bottle-o’ – go figure) so there were a few ‘Australianisms’ that had to be changed to prevent justifiable confusion in the minds of non-Australian readers.
DC: Were you a horror fan growing up in Brisbane? What were some of your favourite horror books and films?
SI: I’ve always been a great fan of suspense horror, rather than slasher – I’m firmly in the ‘what you don’t see is scarier than what you do’ camp. That said, some of my favourite horror films have memorable visual effects to support fabulous stories: The Exorcist and The Thing are just two in the canon. The glimpse of the dead Miss Jessel across the pond in The Innocents remains for me one of the most chilling images in film (but by itself there’s nothing to it, not without all that’s come before). Regarding books, I am a King fan, too, and since I was a boy have loved The Shining as a book and as a film – two delicious bites at one rich blood red cherry. Perhaps the book that had a most profound effect on me (and millions like me!) was The Amityville Horror. Whether it’s truth, half-truth, or pure invention, it still has great power to disturb. Who can read it and not feel a ripple of fear when those red eyes look down from the bedroom window? The book brilliantly encapsulates so many elements that terrify us.
DC: Who and/or what would you credit as being influences while you were writing The Dead Path?
SI: Since high school I have adored the work of Ray Bradbury and continue to return to him again and again. One of the creepiest ‘monsters’ in sci-fi/fantasy for me remains the mechanical hound in Fahrenheit 451. I enjoy writing descriptive prose – perhaps too much! – but if there are any successful passages in The Dead Path, I think they owe a debt of gratitude to the immersion I had in my youth in the works of Mr. Bradbury.
DC: Have you seen any horror films or read any horror novels recently that really stood out as something people should check out?
SI: Lately, I think Pan’s Labyrinth is a standout work that blends disquiet, mythology, and human horror together in an amazing way. I am very encouraged to see ghost stories gaining critical acclaim in well-made films like Bayona’s and Sanchez’s The Orphanage. (What is it about the water in Spain? Gotta get me some of that!) Joe Hill is putting out great material, novels and short stories. Something that particularly excites me about horror today is new media, especially computer games like BioShock – a couple of years old now, but how clever, shadowy, and disturbingly heart-tripping is that game?! I also hope that reading devices like Kindle, Sony Reader and the iPad allow a strong rebirth of the horror novella.
DC: What Australian horror writers would you recommend for the rest of us to read. I have read quite a few but there MUST be more, or is the Aussie horror book genre not very well-populated?
SI: There are too many for me to name here, and I risk missing some gifted writers by beginning to list any, but Honey Brown and Kaaron Warren are two writers relatively new to the scene who are doing great stuff. I really enjoyed the Victorian era ghost story The Séance by John Harwood. I have found great support in the Australian Horror Writers Association, and their website shines a light on just how many Aussie writers are rapt by horror. I really hope that more publishers will get behind horror – and not just vampires, werewolves and zombies. But I do understand Australia is a tough old market in which to sell books by Australian horror writers when well-established overseas authors are competing for the shopper’s book spend.
DC: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like to add?
SI: People still make crocodile hunter jokes when I introduce myself. My ‘smile politely’ gland is pretty well tapped ou so call me crocodile hunter at your peril. (Seriously, Steve Irwin was a great guy with his heart firmly in the right place; he’s badly missed.)
DC: What is one thing no one knows about Stephen M. Irwin that you think they should know?
SI: I cook excellent three-minute eggs (the secret is: cook them for three minutes). And I am still waiting for some nice person to give me a ’65 Fastback Mustang (so far, the Mustang Fairy is proving pretty tardy).
Our thanks to Steven Irwin for taking the time to speak with us.
You can pre-order The Dead Path from the EvilShop below. Or, if you can't wait until October to get your hands on a copy, there's always amazon.uk, where it's been available since December, 2009.
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