Allison M. Dickson is a writer of dark contemporary fiction living in Dayton, Ohio. Though STRINGS is her debut novel, she has been writing for a number of years, with several short stories (including “Dust” and “Under the Scotch Broom”) available on Amazon. Two of her stories were featured The Endlands Volume 2 from Hobbes End Publishing. In 2014, Hobbes End will also be releasing her dystopian science fiction novel, THE LAST SUPPER, and she is independently producing her pulpy dieselpunk noir novel, COLT COLTRANE AND THE LOTUS KILLER to be released in November of 2013. When she isn’t writing, she’s one of the co-hosts of the weekly Creative Commoners podcast. She might also be found gaming, watching movies, hiking the local nature preserve with her husband and two kids who also serve as willing guinea pigs for her many culinary experiments.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, STRINGS. What was your inspiration for it?
A: The book originally began life as a short story I had out for awhile on Amazon called “The Good Girls,” where I told the story of a young and indebted prostitute assigned to visit a horrifying hermit as her final job. But when other readers told me the story read like the beginning to a much longer book, I decided to run with that and the book was born a short time later. I really wanted to tell a story that didn’t have a true hero. I wanted to explore elements of control and freedom, and whether or not those things were illusions. I was inspired a lot by the great crime fiction of Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane, but I wanted to add my own special horror twist to the equation.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist.
A: Well, the story has three protagonists who share equal billing. The first is Nina, the young hooker who is ultimately held prisoner in this house of horrors. She’s left to explore the frightening depths of her own soul. The Madam, who sent Nina to that house, is a pretty sick and twisted lady herself, but she’s very outmatched by her “brother,” and I put that word in quotations for a reason. Finally, there is Ramón, the Madam’s former driver who is also an indentured worker of this criminal organization. He takes matters into his own hands and tries to make a run for it. All three of them are locked together in this twisted web.
Q: How was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way?
A: Writing this book was a bit like mainlining a very powerful drug that took me to some very creepy and very dark places. The project consumed much of my day and my thought processes, and I powered through that first draft (which was around 85,000 words) in a grueling period of about six weeks. The writing of the novel itself was effortless. I had very few issues with plotting it or figuring out how to end it, which are typically obstacles for me. The issues I had writing the book were more personal ones in that I basically burnt my mind out working so furiously on such a grim piece of work. It took a couple months to come out of my little mental cave.
A: For this novel, it was particularly easy, because each chapter was from the point-of-view of one of the three main characters. Writing a book where you’re essentially in the head of one person can get a little challenging after awhile, because sometimes you start feeling limited in what you can see and do. Being able to switch it up so regularly was, I think, one of the main factors that allowed me to stay on task from beginning to end. By the time I reached the end of a Madam chapter, I had to become someone completely different to be Ramón, same with Nina. It was only with Nina’s chapters that I felt a little bit of dread writing, because I think hers are the most raw and frightening of the book.
Q: Do you experience anxiety before sitting down to write? If yes, how do you handle it?
A: Only on certain scenes. Namely climactic ones. I sometimes find myself avoiding writing a certain part of a book for a couple days, even when I know exactly what I plan to have happen. I worry that I won’t be able to execute it properly, so I edge around it for as long as I can and then just hold my nose and dive in. It’s usually fun once I get going, but it’s the anticipation that can be such a killer.
Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?
A: I don’t have a job outside the home competing for my time, so I try to get most of my work done when my husband and kids are gone for the day. This allows me to be present for them when they are around, though there are times when a project is running at full peak—much like I was for the duration of writing STRINGS, when I was writing day and night—when my husband has to pick up the slack for me. I’m lucky that our kids are older now and more self-sufficient, so that makes it easier when those spells hit, but I ultimately prefer our more structured times. Authors spend a lot of time living up inside their own heads, and it can be tempting to stay up there for good. The family keeps me awake and grounded.
Q: How do you define success?
A: It has changed a LOT since I got into this business. It used to be that my success (aside from even finishing a book) was dependent on getting an agent and a major book deal by a big New York publishing house and seeing my books on the stands at Barnes & Noble. And while I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any of those things if it meant getting my books into a lot more hands, I feel very successful with the little career I’ve carved out for myself. I love my relationship with my small publisher, Hobbes End Publishing. I’ve realized that the resources it takes to get a book assembled and produced and released are available at all levels of the spectrum. The small press books you order from Amazon are just as good as the Random House ones someone else just ordered from Amazon. They go through the same level of scrutiny and editing and marketing and design. The small guys just have fewer authors to cater to and they might not be able to print a run of tens of thousands of books. But this also means far less overhead so you can often make a bigger share of the pie. I also love that I have so much creative control and more intimate contact with the whole production process of the book, that they take good care of their small roster of authors and that it feels much like a family. Working in the smaller leagues can also have its drawbacks (distribution being one of them), but I’ve learned there are drawbacks to having the “big” traditional publishing career too and that you should be careful what you wish for. I no longer pine for presence in big bookstores, because fewer and fewer people are shopping in them. Seeing a big book display with my name on it would be more a fulfillment of ego than anything. These days, I just feel successful getting my work into the hands of readers by any means possible, whether that’s through bookstores or strictly through online sales or independently publishing them myself or even giving them away. Go where most of the readers are. If you can tap into that, you’ve succeeded.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?
A: Find a new partner. Okay okay, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes you can still have a great spouse, even if they don’t quite “get” this path you’ve chosen for yourself, where you spend a lot of time alone typing out words, making up stories and largely getting underpaid (or not paid at all) for it, especially when you’re starting out. To some people, this plan can seem selfish or childish, but you can’t let someone else live your life for you. Lead by example. Dedicate yourself to your craft completely and stay committed, while at the same time being present for your partner. When your hard work begins to show dividends through publication credits and royalties, your partner may just come around, but even if you don’t have those things to show for it, even if this is just a hobby, your dedication should demonstrate to your partner that writing is a priority of yours and should at least be respected. Also, setting a decent work schedule and establishing healthy boundaries is really helpful. While you shouldn’t be able to have free reign to check out of life and work on your books whenever you see fit (especially if you have kids or animals or co-habitate), your partner should honor the agreed upon hours you’ve set aside to work. If he or she can’t give you one or two hours a day to pursue or enjoy something that is important to you, then maybe there are some other issues in the relationship that should be addressed with the help of a counselor. Or, barring that, a frying pan to the head. Hey, I’m kidding. Mostly.
Q: George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Do you agree?
A: This quote describes almost verbatim how I felt writing STRINGS. The story grabbed hold of me and refused to let go until it was finished. And it wrecked me for a good while. They aren’t all like that, at least not all the way through, but I do think if you’re interested in turning out quality work, you should agree with this statement at least somewhat, because when you feel possessed by the process and a little wrecked when it’s finished, it means you’re heavily invested in your work, it means you’re bleeding at least a little. And a lot of time that equates to one hell of a book that sticks with people when it’s done. I hope that’s happened with my work, though ultimately it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
A: If you like STRINGS, there is a sequel in the works. Actually, a full series if the characters keep speaking to me. But the follow-up is being written as we speak.