Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Devil’s Engine. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Thanks! It’s really one of those “couple of curious kids start poking around the wrong place” kind of tales. In this case it involves three teenagers and an abandoned – or rather deliberately forgotten – train shed they find at a Hudson rail yard, and how they inadvertently awaken a sleeping bit of diabolical train technology from the 1930s. If you’re like I was when I was a kid, you’re almost genetically programmed to do the stupidest things…
One of the frequent ways I come up with stories is by simply going out to places and meeting people and seeing what connects. One day I was out biking past the Metro North repair shops at Croton Harmon and spotted an old neglected rail shed which got me thinking . . . ‘what if something was walled up in there? What would it be?’ An old steam engine of course. Which then got me thinking about the somehow menacing-looking ‘Commode Vanderbilt’ locomotive model I’d spotted at the Transit Museum shop at Grand Central Terminal not long before. From there it all fell together. I grew up with a love of trains (courtesy of my father) and snooping around abandoned places, so it all it needed was the ‘what if . . .?’ applied to it.
Q: What do you think makes a good horror story? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: I’ll give it a shot. 1) Always tell a good story. 2) Always make your characters believable and engaging. Make your reader forget he’s reading. 3) Be original. The overriding one of course is #1. And as Joseph Campbell said, the key to any good story is “Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.”
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I never plot anything. I’m a firm believer in Robert Frost’s dictum: ‘No surprise the author, no surprise the reader’. Besides, it’s much more fun to let the story tell itself and see where it goes. Pacing and plot twists is where rewrites come in, but more often than not if you’re being sincere about your process, you’ll catch it yourself. If the story starts feeling flat, it already is. Remember: Trouble trouble trouble.
A: Well, there’s arguably three protagonists in this story, though I guess Trent Rhodes – the high-school kid who sets things in motion – is the pivotal one. On one level he’s your typical white suburban rebel, edgy but privileged. His best friend is the opposite – black but artsy and having to work for a living, and the girl unlike the other two; pretty shy and smart.
As to the writing process I’ve developed for myself, it’s rather ad hoc – I develop a digital scrapbook file while developing each story where I throw in bits of dialogue, random ideas and concepts. The characters tend to develop organically from there. Not sure I can explain how, though. It just sort of coagulates.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: In this case it was dreadfully simple: unstoppable juggernaut. Based on historic steam engine. Toss in pseudo-scientific ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ technology with my version of ‘Quantum Occultism”. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Oof. The best thing I can say is repeat what I said above – follow your instinct. If it feels flat then it probably is. If you’re not sure then try reading it aloud, either to yourself or to someone. That often reveals the weak spots, like run-on sentences or parts that drag. When in doubt, have something bad happen.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: Observation and research. Whenever possible I like to experience things firsthand – like in this case standing there studying an old train yard; listening, smelling, absorbing. Get out of the house and explore – there’s a whole world out there to experience and that tactile knowledge will translate into your stories. When I bring that all back into the story the trick is to see it in your mind – see yourself there – then transcribe that for the reader. If it’s not real to you it sure as heck won’t be real to the reader.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I never know what the theme is at the beginning of the story – for me it always starts with a title and a few lines describing anything from a simple concept to a scene. But there are typical themes I suppose – dabbling in forces out of our control, the mysteries of science and magic and what happens when they cross over into each other’s territory, the ability for us to manipulate our own realities and ultimately, life and death.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: That’s an elusive one. I would have to say that art is being exploratory and discovering new territories (or reimagining them at least) whereas craft is more about discipline and execution. A good writer should embrace and balance both I think. As to editing? I would argue a good editor is critical to the writing process. By nature most creative people tend to be self-indulgent and an editor will see that creation and polish off the rough edges. They’ll make that sucker shine. They see things a writer is often blind to – typos, plot holes and redundancies. On the other hand, if your editor is butchering your story to turn it into something for mass market appeal, it’s time to find a new one. I’ve been fortunate in this regard; I’ve worked with several who really refined the story in a way I never would have achieved by myself. Sure, you can be egotistical and run around screaming “Not MY BABY! Never!” but you probably won’t end up a very good writer.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Sincerity, originality and spinning a tale that draws me in to the point of forgetting myself.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I disagree. (Typically) Homework is something somebody else forces upon you to do. Writing is something you choose to do, or are at the very least compelled to do by an inner drive. To me at least, writing is a blast. Homework a headache. I was a lousy student.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: One editor put me onto a book that was immensely helpful “Self-editing for Fiction Writers”by Renni Browne & Dave King – invaluable for training yourself to avoid rookie mistakes. And of course Stephen King’s “On Writing” is excellent, though I don’t fully agree with everything in it. But at the end of the day his main point is really the best – youlearn how to write by writing. If you don’t focus on that all the workshops and books and sites aren’t going to help you.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: My own personal thing: write for yourself and write your own stories, not someone else’s. Find that inner voice that is you and you only. Forget market trends, popular genres and all that BS – strike out on your own new path and take us with you, that’s your job as an author.
About the book:
The Devil’s Engine is a YA horror novella about three curious teenagers who discover a mysterious train born in the shadows of occult World War II research.
Robert J. Stava is a writer who now lives in the lower Hudson Valley just north of NYC, apparently not far from that half-imaginary village he sets so many of his stories in, Wyvern Falls. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and after pursuing a degree in Fine Arts, wound up making his career in advertising at Y&R and J. Walter Thompson in NYC. He went on to become a multimedia Art Director and later as Creative Director ran the 3d Media Group at Arup, an international UK-based design and engineering company before catapulting into the wild world of writing horror fiction.
He is the author of the novels At Van Eyckmann’s Request and The Feast of Saint Anne, and his first published short story “Municipal Lot #9” appeared in issue 017 of Sanitarium Magazine. Three of his other short stories, “Blynd Haus”, “The Anteater”, and “The Dying Dream of Major Andre” will be featured in anthologies later this year by Dark Chapter Press, Grinning Skull Press, and Legends of Sleepy Hollow, respectively. The third novel in his Hudson Horror series, By Summer’s Last Twilight, is due out in autumn of 2015.
He is also author and designer of Combat Recon: 5th Air Force Images from the SW Pacific 1943-45 (Schiffer Publishing, 2007), a historical account based on his great uncle’s service as a combat photographer during World War II.
Visit his author site: www.robertstava.com
The official Wyvern Falls feature site: www.wyvernfalls.com
You can follow him on Twitter: @robertstava
Link to book purchase page: http://muzzlelandpress.storenvy.com