Interview With Mark Steensland

Mark Steensland first learned how to scare people at the age of four during a drive-in screening of Rosemary’s Baby. Although he was supposed to be asleep in the back of the family station wagon, he stayed awake, secretly listening. When the doctor on screen announced Rosemary’s due date as June 28th, he sat up and proudly exclaimed, “That’s my birthday!” giving his parents and siblings a shock from which they still have not recovered. Over the years that followed, he became obsessed with Aurora monster models, Dark Shadows, Famous Monsters magazine, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. His first professional publication was as a film journalist, in Jim Steranko’s Prevue magazine. Numerous bylines followed in American Cinematographer, Millimeter and Kamera. As a director, his short films (including Lovecraft’s Pillow, Dead@17, Peekers, The Ugly File, and The Weeping Woman) have played in festivals around the world and earned numerous awards. His novel for young readers, Behind the Bookcase, was published in 2012 by Random House. His novella for adults, The Special, was published in late 2018 and has been made into a feature film. He currently lives in California with his wife and their three children.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

All of my stories have some real-life component to them. Some people find that hard to believe since I write in what I’ll call the genre of the fantastic, which includes science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. This means I write about things like houses that come to life or a one-eyed boy who is given to a carnival by his mother. On the surface, these things don’t seem realistic. But underneath, they are about real emotions such as betrayal and obsession. And that’s an important part of storytelling for me. I’m always trying to find the reality in what I’m writing.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

I draw inspiration from everywhere I can. And I try to be open to inspiration from everywhere, as well. For instance, I walk through my neighborhood at least once a day. And one night, the moon was full and the wind was blowing the fronds of a palm tree so that the shadows on the ground were moving, accompanied by this dry rustling sound. And there was just something about that moment that created a particular sort of feeling for me. And I’ll take something like that and think about how I can create that same sort of feeling in a story so that someone else can experience it in a way.

How do you deal with creative block?

I hate to say it, but I don’t really believe in “writer’s block,” as it is traditionally defined. I think that you can be dissatisfied with your writing. I think you can lack confidence. I think you can be afraid to write something because you don’t think it will be good. But the creative process is still all about choices. The simple fact is that you can’t get good writing without having some writing in the first place. That means choosing to write something. I’m reminded of when I wanted to learn how to spin nunchaku over the back of my hand. I decided to spend 15 minutes per day on learning how to do this task. The first days were incredibly painful as I lost my grip and hit myself. But I knew those things had to come first. It took a very long time before I finally had a breakthrough moment where I understood how to move to the next level. Eventually, after many weeks, I was able to do what I wanted. But without choosing to dedicate myself, I could never have achieved that.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

I think the most important component in storytelling is urgency. I don’t mean that the story has to involve some sort of deadline, although that is an effective way to create urgency and it’s one reason why so many stories revolve around deadlines. Nor am I talking about pacing as we think of it these days (like fast cutting). I mean that you need to find the most urgent part of your story and focus on that. As an example, in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones needs to find the ark before the Nazis do. The sense of urgency around that task infuses every part of that story and constantly hovers in the background.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think we all do. And that means bad covers are a grave enemy. I’ve been fortunate to have great covers for everything so far. In several cases, I had 100% input. I even made a short film about the evolution of the cover design for my first book, BEHIND THE BOOKCASE, which shows how many sketches the artist went through before arriving at the final, award-winning design. I also think titles are very important. I used to work in video distribution, selling movies to video stores. And what would happen very often was that customers would call to order a movie and they would give me the title and I would look it up and there would be multiple movies with that exact same title. IT TAKES TWO, for example, has been used as a title many, many times. Because of this, I constantly search for things that have never been used before. I know that sounds like an impossible task, but I’ve found that it can be done. For example, AUTUMN PROSE, WINTER VERSE is the title of only one book: mine. That really avoids confusion.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I firmly believe there is an audience for everything. Usually, a bad review just means that particular person wasn’t the audience for your particular book. That’s okay. Someone else out there will love your book. As a for instance, someone I know loved the first season of MINDHUNTER. But she couldn’t handle the second season’s sub-plot involving the kids. She knows the show is well made. And she knows lots of other people like it. She’s just not the audience for it. The way to deal with bad reviews is to keep doing what you do because that’s the audience you want to find.

How has your creation process improved over time?

Everything gets better with practice. And not just from a writing standpoint, but also from seeing how the work interacts with the audience. I’m a filmmaker as well as an author and I can say without equivocation that watching my films with an audience was one of the most important stages in my development as an artist. Everything changes when you are able to see your work with different eyes. And you simply can’t understand what that experience is like without actually having it.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

Serving my readers is what satisfies me the most. I mean that in the sense that I want to create the best possible experience for my audience. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to best accomplish that. And when I feel I’ve really gotten it right, that’s when I feel satisfied with what I’ve done.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

In a way, emotions are everything. Even when I’m thinking about a specific technical trick, it still is all about the best way to create an emotional response in the reader. I also firmly believe that all storytelling is about emotional resolution. The main character is trying to resolve some emotional issue in their life and they take the reader along with them for that ride. And hopefully we get to experience a bunch of other emotions on the journey.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Storytelling is a trick, at its heart. We’re essentially asking people to pretend that the characters they are reading about are real enough to become involved with them. I often think of a story from the making of Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE. And the animators were discussing the scene where Snow White is running through the forest and she falls. And some of them got really worried and wondered how badly she would be hurt by that. And of course, it’s silly, in one sense, because they were talking about someone who couldn’t be hurt because they aren’t real. But this is how it works for us. It’s how we want it to work. What this means for the writer is that you can understand how people respond to certain things and then build those things into your story in order to create that response. A simple example of this is called a “reversal.” This is when you set the audience up to expect A and then give them B. They are surprised by the unexpected. Depending on what it is exactly, you can create laughter, or tears, or terror.

What are your plans for future books?

As I mentioned earlier, I collect story material all the time. Whatever the seed is, I think about it and see where it grows. Some things take a very long time. Some happen very quickly. But I have files full of fragments that I turn to first. Right now, I have a couple of things going. Some of them are out to publishers. And some of them are still being written. Unfortunately, I don’t have any firm date on the next release.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I know some writers need silence. And some need loud music to drown out all other distractions. I use music like a soundtrack. I spend a lot of time thinking about the tone and feeling of the story I’m writing. And then I find music that matches and I build a massive playlist of things for that particular story. I find it really helps me to find the right voice. Because of this, I have a fairly large collection of movie soundtracks that I can then put together in a sort of patchwork quilt. In the movie business, this is part of what the music editor does when they are assembling what’s called the “temp score” for a movie, which is music from other movies added to the film so the composer and director have a starting point for their musical discussions.


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