Craig Wallwork, author of BAD PEOPLE sits down with Night Worm, Benjamin Long for an interview and a cover reveal of his new book, LABYRINTH OF DOLLS.
NIGHT WORMS: Today I have the pleasure of speaking with author Craig Wallwork to discuss his background as a writer, as well as his latest book Bad People. Craig, how are you?
CRAIG WALLWORK: I’m doing fine, Ben. Thanks for asking.
NW: I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that life is busy. Always has been, always will be. How do you balance your work life, writing life, and family life?
CW: I have a very patient and loving wife and a job that finishes around 3pm. Every writer works this differently. Some write first thing in the morning before they go to work. Some write at night. Not one shoe fits all, which is partly why I hate writing advice. Okay, I'm about to digress, but it's important for any fledgling writer out there to know that it's okay to adopt other writer's methodologies and practices, but there are really only two things you need to do to become a great writer: Read and Write. I put them in that order for a reason. The best teachers you'll ever find in the world are not those trying to get you to enroll in their classes. It's the authors you read. They will teach you everything you need to know. The second part is to write and write a lot. The more you write the better you'll get at it. So, if someone tells you to write five hours a day, or you need to complete ten thousand words before you can have that iced latte, pay no heed. You'll find your own groove and once you do, stick with it. Which leads me back on track; I write around my life now, and not allow my writing to get in the way of life. That took me a long time to understand. The other thing I do is make sure I'm in the room when I'm with the family, not in my head. If my kids ask me something, I want to hear them, not ask them to repeat what they said because I was too distracted trying to figure out how to start a zombie apocalypse. And if my wife asks if I want to go out for a picnic in the park, I don't want to pull a face because I'm thinking that's three hours away from the laptop. As much as writing brings me joy, it doesn't come close to watching my children play, or hearing my wife's laughter. Those things you don't get back. That's how I manage things; I give my time to family and work, and what's leftover I use to write. As the Rolling Stones song goes, you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
NW: What a great reminder about prioritizing. I think that’s advice people of all hobbies and passions can benefit from. Since we’re on the topic of writing, let’s talk about how you got into it. Can you tell me some about your background as an author?
CW: I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. I fell into it by accident. My natural skill was drawing, and I wanted to be an illustrator; comic books, animation, something like that. But in art college, I developed a keen interest in film. I would book out the video camera under the pretense of filming art installations, but really I was writing these little sketches with my friends or making stop-frame animation combined with live-action movies. I ended up focusing on filmmaking after leaving art school, but the trouble was you needed a script to be a filmmaker and I wasn’t a writer. So, I taught myself how to write by analyzing scripts and reading books.
NW: When did you make the transition from scripts to books?
CW: A few years later I landed a position as an editor at a television company. It was basically run out of this guy’s house and I was in the basement. It sounds weird now, but it was a good set up. There wasn’t a ton of work to do so I began writing little stories during the lulls. It was about this time I read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and that was a real game-changer. Here was a guy who wrote in a way that made you think you could be a writer. I was wrong. Palahniuk’s style is easy to mimic but totally unique. I ended up joining his online workshop on the Cult, the official website of Chuck Palahniuk run by Dennis Widmyer who went on to direct the remake of Pet Sematary. I met some great writers there that I’m still friends with today. We’d write shorts, which were mostly Palahniuk rip-offs, line by line them, and try and get them published. My first publication was through Laura Hird’s website, which was a story about a boy observing the decline of his grandparent with dementia. I still remember getting that acceptance and feeling like a real writer.
NW: Ok, so you had your first story published. That’s exciting! What came next? How did you transition from various shorts to having full collections published?
CW: Fast forward a few years and a lot of the writers I knew migrated to a place called The Velvet, a website dedicated to the works of Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. Paul Tremblay was a member too and I discovered so many great books and learned so much about the craft. My stories were getting picked up too and my confidence was growing daily. Then, within a short time frame, I had three books published: Quintessence of Dust, To Die Upon a Kiss, and The Sound of Loneliness. I also landed a gig as the fiction editor of an arts journal called Menacing Hedge, where I was able to harvest stories from literary heroes of mine like Etgar Keret, Stephen Graham Jones, Robert Shearman, Aimee Bender, and Amelia Gray to name just a few. It was a great time. I really felt part of some kind of revival in dark literature and I owe a lot to writers like Amanda Gowin, Nik Korpon, Richard Thomas, Axel Taiari, Gordon Highland, Andrew Post, and many more.
NW: Sounds like you’ve met a lot of good people in the industry. I love how friendly and collaborative the horror community is.
CW: You’re exactly right. Oh and Max Booth read The Sound of Loneliness and liked it enough to offer me the opportunity to publish a short story collection called Gory Hole: A Horror Triple Bill through Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. It’s been great seeing Max progress from publisher to carving his own mark in the literary world, and I’m sure he’s going to go on to bigger and better places. I guess what I’m saying here is, yes, I did fall accidentally into writing, but I’m so glad I did. Along the way, I’ve met some wonderfully creative people who I hold both in high regard and close to my heart.
NW: Ok, so you’re having work published and now you’re officially a “writer”. Can you tell me a little bit about what your process is like when it comes to writing?
CW: Writing a story or novel is a lot like panning; I have to shift through the grit to find the gold (and believe me, I have more grit than gold). But it’s the ideas that linger in the mind that tend to make it to paper. As mentioned, I’m really into movies so a lot of the time I see stories as just that in my mind. I hear the dialogue and see the facial expressions change. I observe the rooms my characters inhabit as if I’m right there with them. So, when it comes to writing down the story, all I’m pretty much doing is transcribing the movie in my head with all the rich detail translated into words.
NW: Sounds like you have a very visual imagination. That’s an interesting way to look at it, taking the scenes of a “movie” and turning them into chapters or events in the book.
CW: I rarely have all the scenes though. I might have an overall idea based on a theme. For example: if the theme is to write a strong female lead, I think about that and try to dodge the tropes of the final girl. At this stage, I’m panning. Scenes then begin to present themselves to me. I observe and allow them to play out. So I see a woman going to a retreat in the woods to get away from a broken marriage. But I might tweak that a little and have her going to the retreat because of something bad that happened back home but leave that reveal until later. Then I think about the retreat and the owners. Are they normal? What’s their impetus? The retreat has a lake and the lake needs regular rainfall otherwise it’ll lower and reveal what? Dead bodies. Okay! Now I’m really panning. So the retreat owners need a sacrifice to the rain gods to keep the lake full and their secret hidden. That’s why they set up the business, to lure people in. The woman is the perfect new sacrifice. But how do I make the woman the victor in this? Okay, let’s turn it around. Unbeknownst to the retreat owners, the woman is a werewolf. That’s why she’s going there, to transform so she’s not near a heavily populated area. So now I have a story. I still don’t have the ending. That’ll come during the process of writing. And yes, I wrote that. It’s called The Lake of a Thousand Screams.
NW: Wow, thanks for walking us through that. I feel like we’re getting our own little writing workshop.
CW: Yeah it just shows the process I go through for all my stories or novels. If you read any of my work you’re not getting what you assume from the title or blurb. There’s more. Lots more. And most of it has heart. So a werewolf tearing the skin and organs out of a person might sound like a cliché. But scratch the veneer and beneath you’ll find a rich depth of emotion.
NW: Why is having a depth of emotion in characters important to you?
CW: I'm drawn to flawed characters, those who are broken or are about to break. Imperfection humanizes a character to me. I may not like them to begin with. I may even hate them, but charging them with emotional depth means exposing their vulnerability so the reader can experience feelings of compassion, or empathy. Take the character of Billy in Stranger Things. He's portrayed as a bad-ass, angry rebel in Season 2. He bullies his sister and is the antagonist. There's nothing to like about him. But there's a back story we don't see until much later in the show. It reveals why he became the man who people fear, and why he bullies and acts like a dick. Once you know this you warm to him, you understand him more and inevitably empathize with his character. In one pivotal scene in Season 3, he redeems himself. Then all of a sudden the bad-ass becomes the savior, the good soul, and you actually like him. There are a thousand other examples in literature or movies (Severus Snape, the Grinch, Vadar, et al). It's that heart of the character that pulls a reader in, and it's something I'm always acutely aware of when reading books and writing them. If there's no heart, there's no story.
NW: Which do you think is more important: having a compelling plot or having complex characters?
CW: I may be misquoting King here, but he said something like character-driven stories is about putting someone incredible in an ordinary situation, whereas plot-driven narratives are putting ordinary people in incredible situations. Something like that. Using that example, I always gravitate to incredible characters. I was heavily into those Beat/Underbelly/Slice of Life books for a long time; Fante, Knut Hamsun, Kerouac and Salinger. Nothing really exciting happened in any of those stories. Mostly it was just bitter men who had no money trying to get through life. Had that been the blurb I wouldn't have turned the first page. But the characters were incredible. Their social observations were funny and sardonic, their dialogue rich and laden with hostility and pathos. They pushed you along because the world they inhabited was ordinary and dull, but their perspective was anything but that. My first novel, The Sound of Loneliness, was a pastiche of these works. I created a character in Daniel Crabtree that was both the protagonist and the antagonist. For many readers, he was like gum stuck to the sole of their shoe; annoying and frustrating and unable to scrape off. But they still liked him because beneath that layer of unpleasantness was this sweet, susceptible young man. It's only now, with the recent foray into the thriller genre, that I'm trying to balance both character and plot. So ask me that question again in a couple of years and I may give you a different answer.
NW: I love that response and thank you for the peek into your early influences. Besides the “panning” process you mentioned earlier, do you have any quirks or must-haves when it comes to "getting in the zone” for writing?
CW: A quiet room. That's all. I have two kids and believe me trying to write when the television is blasting out In the Night Garden or Despicable Me is not conducive to the process of writing.
NW: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
CW: There are two schools of thought regarding this. There are those who believe writer's block isn't real and is nothing more than lethargy or idleness. Then there are those who do believe in it and liken it to constipation. Chuck Palahniuk used to say that you wouldn't use the toilet if you didn’t need to go. So in other words, sit down at the laptop when the idea presents itself and write. Don't force it because you'll only end up with a pain in the arse. But I've equally heard the counter argument that you must write something every day, regardless. I think Ray Bradbury said write a story every week because out of the fifty-two, one is likely to be gold. My opinion is that writer's block is a sign the brain needs to recalibrate or expend energy in other areas like problem solving, or work-related issues, or how to assemble flat-pack furniture. If I don't write for a day, I don't fret. If I don't write for a week, so be it. I trust my mind and I know it's a fertile environment. Something will come and I'll be ready when it does.
NW: Thanks for the insight into your process. Now let’s move to talk about your latest book, the crime thriller Bad People. What were some of your early influences for the book? What inspired you to write it?
CW: I don't read thriller or crime novels, so I had no desire to write one. Okay, I'm lying. I once read Karen Slaughter and a book from the Girl series that wasn't written by Stieg Larsson. Then I read Paul Tremblay's The Disappearance at Devil's Rock, which mixed thriller with supernatural horror. Tremblay's book opened the door to the possibility that I could write a book that wasn't like the airport fiction I had avoided for many years. But it was only after reading Thomas Harris that I decided to write a thriller. I'm a bit of snob when it comes to literature. I like turn of phrases, great analogies/metaphors, and wordplay. I remember falling in love with Michael Chabon after reading, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and then divorcing him so I could get into bed with Michael McDowell after reading the Blackwater series. There are many other wild affairs I have had with literary authors, so from the little exposure I've had to mainstream thrillers, I knew that style wouldn't turn me on. Harris debunked that myth. He had a successful series writing books that were dark, edgy, horrific, and more importantly, beautifully written. I'll apologize now for any crime and thriller writers out there that agonize over a cleverly crafted sentence as much as they do plot, but from what I can gather from my wife, who consumes at least two books in this genre per week, they're written in a more simplistic style to appeal to a larger demographic. Maybe this ignorance I have toward the genre is a good thing. It's allowed me to come into it blind and blend my knowledge gleaned from work with my love of horror. I didn't want to fall into the tropes of the thriller genre too. Once I decided to write Bad People I knew the lead detective wouldn't be a Jack Reacher type. I didn't want twisted steel and sex appeal. I wanted more elephant seal and Achilles' heel. Not to be too disparaging to the detectives I know, but not many are over six foot with bronzed skin and steely eyes. It was important for me to portray the realism of that world and I did that with Tom Nolan. I think this is why people will like him. He bleeds and cries. He struggles with loneliness and his weight. He is flawed but human. And for that, I hold him close to my heart.
NW: Tom works well as a flawed character, and I found him to be portrayed very realistically. The story is carried along from a variety of perspectives, including protagonists and antagonists. Why did you choose to write in this format and how do you feel it benefits the story?
CW: You can blame Robert Bloch for that. I'm a huge fan of Psycho, both movie and book. Flitting between characters firmly seats the reader into the world you've created and allows them to experience both good and evil. From the killer's viewpoint, we get to see the crime up close, which in Bad People is very gruesome in parts. Then you're back in the police world, seeing the methodologies and hypotheses as they begin to close the net on the killer. For any writer considering this method, it's important to note that you have to limit how many characters you use. I think the acceptable maximum number is six. But what I will add is that as a writer it allows you to add tension very quickly and break up some of the monotony that may come with police procedure novels.
NW: Yeah I agree it’s a very effective strategy. Earlier you mentioned knowing detectives, and just now you mentioned police methodologies. The book dives deep into the world of a police investigation, including explanations of procedures and law enforcement jargon. Does this come from background experience or did you have to do a lot of research for the book?
CW: I work in a college training police officers of all ranks, so a lot of the procedural stuff was gleaned over time through teaching. That said, I wrote myself into a lot of corners and needed the help of detectives I work with to help pull me out. What's important to remember here is, if a writer was to document every stage of an investigation from when it's reported, all the way to the apprehension of the offender, it would be so dull and probably run into the thousand pages. In movies, we see only a fraction of what actually happens. We're able to explore it more in books, but again, for the sake of the reader's sanity, everything is reduced by at least fifty percent. All a writer has to do is convince the reader to trust them. They can do this through emotion or technical jargon. There's a fine line too. I remember reading The Martian by Andy Weir and nearly going blind reading all the math and technical aspects of the novel. In truth, I began skipping huge chunks. I'm no botanist or astronaut but he convinced me very early on he'd done his research. From thereon I was going to believe everything he wrote, even if I didn't read it all. In Bad People there is a lot of police procedural stuff in there, and I make no excuses for putting it in. But it only serves to provide trust. It also acts as literary speed bumps sometimes to slow the reader down when something important is about to happen. It's all about getting the reader to hold your hand and walk the journey you've mapped out. They'll only do this if they trust you.
NW: No excuses necessary. I think you walked that line perfectly and maintained just the right balance. So, in the book, there are multiple references to the Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. Without giving too much away, can you tell me why the emphasis on that particular painter and his work?
CW: I stumbled on Bosch accidentally while researching cults. There’s no confirmation of this, but there is some suggestion Bosch was a member of a heretical sect called the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Their manifesto went along the lines of God is incarnate in everything, so everything and everyone is God, which in turn means everything and everyone is good, thus negating sin. If there’s no sin, you can pretty much do what you want without consequence or guilt. It's a fucked up way of getting a hall pass to kill. I sew the pages of Bad People together using this skewed manifesto. It's how cults are created. The killers in Bad People were screwed up, to begin with, but the Brethren gave them purpose and validated their need to murder. Again, there is no confirmation I can find, but it's said that the Brethren of the Free Spirit may have inspired Bosch's painting too. For anyone who doesn't know his work, they're these really dark, twisted, surreal triptych renderings filled with biblical debauchery, sin, and human failings – all the things that play out in Bad People.
NW: I already know I’m going down a rabbit hole tonight researching this cult. You mentioned that Bad People is the first book in a Tom Nolan series. Can you give any hints as to where he's heading next? Anything else you're working on that you'd like to plug?
CW: In September of this year, the second in the Tom Nolan book series, Labyrinth of the Dolls, will be released. It takes place one year after the events of Stormer Hill and Nolan has joined the Murder Investigation Team. His first job is investigating a serial killer who likes to dress up their victims like dolls. This book is just as dark as Bad People, but whereas before I had multiple perspectives, this is mostly from Nolan's point of view as he tracks down the killer known as the Doll Maker and unearths something very significant that relates to the Brethren of the Free Spirit. So, while Labyrinth may introduce a new killer, it also dovetails with Bad People perfectly. I wish I could say more, but I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say this: that huge question left hanging at the end of Bad People gets answered, so expect blood and plenty of it.
NW: What an exciting teaser! I love that we’ll be learning more about the cult and diving deeper into the world you’ve created. Craig, thank you so much for taking time out of your day for this interview.
CW: It’s been a pleasure, Ben. Hopefully, we can do it again sometime.
If you want to learn more about Craig Wallwork and his work then check out his website or follow him on Instagram and Twitter. His latest book BAD PEOPLE is out now on Amazon and wherever books are sold. His upcoming book
It's been one year since the horrific murders of Stormer Hill, and the events of that time continue to resonate with Detective Constable Tom Nolan. In an attempt to find the second killer, known only as the Ragman, Nolan joins West Yorkshire's Murder Investigation Team.
Partnered with Jennifer Morrison, a straight-talking detective with her eye on promotion, the two officers are assigned to track down a new killer whose victims are all found dressed like human dolls. As the investigation progresses, Nolan becomes an intricate piece in the killer's grand vision that puts his life in danger.
But with the body count rising daily and the pressure to find who the media is labeling the Doll Maker increasing, Nolan discovers more than just a series of grisly murders... Within the human dolls, the answers he has sought for nearly a year may finally be found.
Pre-Order LABYRINTH OF THE DOLLS
Thank you to Ben @reading_vicariously for this author interview, exclusively for Night Worms
Ben is a father, husband, believer, teacher, reader, and writer living in the beautiful downtown district of Woodstock, GA. He reads all kinds of books, but he has a particular penchant for horror, YA, and works by diverse authors. When he's not reading he's instilling a passion for literature and writing in his students and spending quality time with his wife and two kids. @reading.vicariously