Wonderbook Interview with Stant Litore

Stant Litore is the author of the acclaimed horror series The Zombie Bible. Born a farmer’s son in the Pacific Northwest, Litore took the college road and eventually earned his PhD in English, but remains passionate for things that grow. Today he lives in Colorado with his wife and their two daughters, writing about the restless dead and the restless living. He avoids certain parts of the mountains during the dark of the moon

Can you describe your writing process—what’s usually in the rough draft and what’s not?

I get the characters down first – find out what makes them hurt and what makes them happy, find out what they’re all doing in this story. Then I go back and start detailing the world around them – the culture, the traditions both social and individual that define their lives. Whether it rains all the time or is sunny and what that means to them. The history of the past generation of the place they’re living in and what riddles or angst that history has left to them, now, in the present. Then I rewrite the story from there.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say something to the effect that the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life. Do you think that the construct built by a writer to talk about characterization actually has much to do with what they put on the page?

I think the characters have the greatest degree of “life” in the mind of the reader, in the life of the reader. The reader will laugh with your characters or weep with them, or both. When a reader writes to me and tells me that Regina’s story made her cry, I imagine that there is a relationship there, perhaps momentary, yet meaningful. That reader’s relationship with an imaginary person has had some impact on her heart. That is where the character has “life.”

I think the way most writers talk about characterization mostly serves as the way we remind ourselves that good characterization is not a matter of the writer deciding what happens in each scene. That characters are simulacra of people. That, Godlike, you get to set the rules – here are events that have happened in your character’s life, here are some obstacles, here is something your character fears, something she desires – but once you have set those parameters, the character executes the story within them, surprising the writer. It’s like writing a complex software program, or creating a virtual reality environment, and then running it and seeing what happens. You are creating everything that occurs, yet you are surprised.

I think there is something that mystifies most of us about this process of creation. About the way that we can be awakened in the middle of the night by the sudden realization that the natural thing for our character to do in the next scene is something entirely different from what we intended. So we talk about a character “coming to life.” But actually we are running (inside our heads) a complex virtual reality simulation we have designed, then writing down (on paper) what happens during that simulation. And when we find something wasn’t really satisfying about the story, we go back and tweak the parameters of that mental simulation, adding rules or subtracting them. Then we rewind and run part of the simulation again, and we revise what we wrote down before, because the new simulation is richer and more meaningful and much more entertaining to us.

What makes for a compelling character?

Strength of will. Writing workshops like to talk about “round” characters and “sympathetic” characters, meaning characters who are psychologically nuanced and with whom we can identify. But that’s really just a bare minimum. A character can be sympathetic and psychologically nuanced and yet also quite forgettable. Readers need characters they can admire. Even a character – say, a villain – that we dislike, we need to find admirable in some respect. We need to see their moments of strength in meeting some obstacle. Whether we are reading of a soldier carrying his fallen comrade across a field in the midst of battle, or a single mother saying no to her boss so she can spend the evening with her daughters, or an addict finally picking up the phone and pausing, wrestling with himself before dialing the number to get help – what we are drawn to is that moment of strength, of willpower. The characters we never forget are the characters we admire.

Does a character have to be likeable?

No, just admirable in some respect. I do not like Jason Compton in the least, in fact I find him detestable – yet I am drawn as a reader to the strength of his obsession and his will. I can’t look away from the pages of The Sound and the Fury as he charges across country in an indefatigable quest to spy on his sister and find more ways to destroy her. There is a dark charisma to his determination that renders him fascinating and mesmerizing on the page.

Do you believe in creating a lot of back story for your characters, material not on the page?

I take a very pragmatic approach to backstory: I want to know what moment defined the character’s relationship to their parents, what moment defined their greatest desire, and what moment defined their greatest fear. Those three moments are most of what I need, because those three tell me where the character comes from, what they want, and what holds them back. I write those three scenes.

If there’s a pivotal relationship in the story that has been going on for some time or that ended prior to the opening of the narrative, I write the couple of scenes that really matter to that relationship: its beginning, its highest point, its first moment of real risk, and where it ended (if applicable).

If these scenes aren’t actually needed on the page, I’ll cut them out later, or keep the couple of lines that are essential, embedding them at the latest possible point at which they can be revealed to the reader. Most often, a few paragraphs of my actual backstory scenes survive into the finished manuscript.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

Yes. Several main characters in Strangers in the Land were not even present in the first draft. The deeper I get into the writing, the readier I am to ask myself questions like “What would really test this character?” or “What type of culture or subculture is influencing this character?” As I build both the world and the architecture of the character’s emotional life, new opportunities appear that are so obvious once seen that you wonder how you hadn’t thought of them before. And that means rewriting the past hundred pages. That sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it is also the difference between telling a decent story and telling what could be a great story.

For novels, do you outline, and if so, to what extent? What is an outline to you in terms of your process?

An outline is a tool, not a table of contents. Where I find an outline useful is once I have written about a third to half of the manuscript, enough to start learning who my characters actually are, what crises they have faced and will face, what holds them back and what drives them forward. Once I know that, for each major character I outline the five scenes (could be four, could be seven) that represent moments of choice or potential choice along that character’s arc. Those are the pivotal scenes. Once I know what those five scenes are, I look at each one and ask two questions:

  • What does the character need to know or experience before reaching this point?
  • What does the reader need to know or experience before reaching this point?

The scenes in between the points on the character arc have to address these two questions. Anything that doesn’t risks being filler. So this type of non-linear outline tells me where to add, where to cut, and helps me start really playing with the possibilities. Where do the characters arc cross? What are the catalysts for reaching the next scene? In what ways can I surprise my characters and my readers? Used as this kind of tool, an outline can be incredibly exciting.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

I will never forget something the poet Cole Swensen told me about ten years ago. She looked at a paragraph of narrative about which I was feeling a bit prideful, and she said, “Oh, but you’re imitating yourself here.”

Imitating what you have done in the past or simply repeating it is how talented writers sabotage their own work. Because sooner or later you run into replica failure: a copy of a copy of a copy ends up showing degraded quality. Something gets lost. I think we have to stay right on our edge, pushing to do something we haven’t done before, each time we approach a new narrative. That might mean pushing the limits of what we believe we’re capable of stylistically; it might mean tackling a new theme or question, new content, rather than a refrain we’ve written about previously.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

“Show, don’t tell” is both great advice and terrible advice. You should frequently show rather than tell. But not always. There are also times when it’s better to tell in a really entertaining way. Just ask Fyodor Dostoevsky or Victor Hugo.

“Write what you know” is often an atrocious bit of advice to give young writers. Too many writers assume that this is a limiting statement, rather than a prompt to get them started. A better prompt would be to write what you’re passionate about, write what you’re afraid of, write what you hope for and write what you love about people and about the world. Use experiences you’ve had or stories you’ve heard to inform the story you’re telling but start by writing about something that moves you. That’s the most important thing. Write about something that makes you feel deeply.

Why do you write?

Why do you breathe? I have no idea why I write; I just do. I know that we are storytelling creatures. We come home at the end of the day and tell our spouse a story about work, or we get together with a friend and tell a story about our most recent date. We make meaning of what happens to us or around us or through us by telling stories about it. And after we do that, after we’ve found just enough story to render the day sufficiently meaningful, we have some coffee or go hiking or make love or go to sleep.

For whatever reason, that quick act of honey-I’m-home storytelling does not satisfy me. There always seems to be so much more to tell. A story behind every child running past and every couple arguing at a restaurant. So much to understand, so much more that is happening, all around us, every day. So much backstory and tension and life. Maybe I just never mastered the knack of moving on fully to the next thing. The world seems so hungry for meaning, so desperately hungry.