On this month's Special Page:
A rare and exclusive interview with best-selling author
"The horror poet laureate." -- Stephen King
IN THE "SPECIAL PAGE" ARCHIVES:
INTERVIEW WITH BENTLEY LITTLE:
Unique questions for a unique author
JEANI: Let’s start at the beginning. For years, the rumor has circulated that you were born directly after your mother had gone to see the premier of Hitchcock’s film Psycho. Is that true or do you want to finally lay that story to rest?
BENTLEY: It wasn't right after the premier, but my mother was pregnant with me when she saw the film. The first part of the movie (before Janet Leigh takes off with the stolen money) was filmed in Phoenix, so that was where one of the premiers was held.
My parents went to see it, along with my grandmother, and none of them had any idea what Psycho was about. They were expecting it to be like North by Northwest, Hitchcock's previous movie, or perhaps a twisty tongue-in-cheek story like the ones on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was popular on TV at the time.
Needless to say, they were....surprised. My mother, apparently, screamed very loudly at the "jump" scenes, so much so that forever after, whenever the movie Psycho was mentioned, my grandmother would get a very serious look on her face. "Your mother screamed so hard," she would tell me, "that I thought you'd be born retarded."
Well, that didn't happen, but I did seem to be born with an affinity for horror.
JEANI: Everyone knows you do not have a presence on the internet. Not everyone is sure why. Would you like to tell us?
BENTLEY: It's very simple, really. Like most authors, I'm a raging egomaniac. I know that about myself. And I know that, if I had internet access, I would waste countless hours looking up things about myself, writing fake posts about how great I am and arguing with people who don't like my work. It saves me a lot of time and frustration to just stay out of the loop.
(Lest you think I'm the only one who would stoop to such a level, there was a glitch on Amazon several years ago and, for a brief period of time, the real email addresses of reviewers were visible. It turned out that many authors were writing fake reviews praising their own work and panning the work of their rivals).
I also don't like the fact that the internet seems to have changed the relationship of authors to their readers. I'm old-fashioned. I want to be judged on my work, not my personality. My life is not a reality show—I'm not going to be a dancing monkey and entertain people with my antics. My books are out there, and I hope people read them and enjoy them, but I'm not going to prostitute my privacy in order to expand my readership.
Now that I'm getting all of this off my chest, I also have to admit that I don't understand the fascination of Facebook. Why people would want to amass a group of "friends" they don't even know, or contact individuals from their past with whom they've (presumably with good reason) not kept in touch, is a mystery to me.
JEANI: The “unofficial” Bentley Little website The Horrifying World of Bentley Little is run by one of your fans, with your approval. Have you ever seen it?
BENTLEY: I did see it years ago at a friend's house, and I was very impressed that a reader would enjoy my work to such an extent that she would create something like that. It's very flattering, and I appreciate the support.
JEANI: Before you became a successful writer, you worked at a lot of odd jobs, including window washer and rodeo gate keeper. What was the worst job you ever held?
BENTLEY: I pretty much hated them all. I suppose, if pinned down, I would have to say that the worst job was being an attendant at a video arcade called Missile Impossible. I was in college, it was a part-time job, and the hours were horrible—from eight pm to midnight, if I recall. My job was to sit in a booth, hand out tokens and occasionally reset the machines. I could feel my IQ dropping each time I walked into that hellhole.
To this day, if I hear Foreigner's song "Waiting for a Girl Like You," I get Missile Impossible flashbacks, since that worthless piece of crap was played constantly on the Top 40 station that was blasted at concert-level volume throughout the arcade.
JEANI: Your reputation is such that you are considered to be “your own person” and not influenced by others’ opinions. Would you like to expand on that?
BENTLEY: I really don't know how to respond to such a question. If I have any sort of reputation, it's one that's been foisted upon me by others. It's true that I've never been a joiner. I don't like groups or committees, and I've always pretty much gone my own way. I'm considered a member of the "horror community" since I'm a horror writer, but I don't hang out with other authors or go to any conventions, so if that's what you mean by being my own person, I guess that's true.
JEANI: My readers are very interested in learning about you, because you are so elusive to the point where you are an enigma. So, what is Bentley Little really like?
BENTLEY: An enigma? That's not a bad persona to have. I should probably shut up and let the mystery continue! It's good for my career.
The truth is that I'm just a normal person. As I've said before, horror for me is a literary preference, not a lifestyle. I like reading horror novels and seeing horror movies, and of course I write horror stories. But I don't dress in black or decorate my house with skulls or vacation in graveyards.
If there's any mystery to me at all, it's probably due to the fact that I'm not online and don't go to conventions—which means that I'm probably not as accessible to fans as most writers are these days. If that makes me seem like a weird recluse, so be it.
JEANI: Your first book to be published was The Revelation in 1990 on Saint Martin’s Press. That went on to win the Bram Stoker award for “Best First Novel.” Is it true that you wrote that book as a college thesis? What made you decide to try to publish it?
BENTLEY: I had just earned my B.A. in Communications when I sold my first story to David Silva's seminal magazine The Horror Show. I wasn't ready to go out into the real world and had been planning to stay in school and get my master's degree in Political Science, thinking it would be an asset if I landed a job as a journalist.
But what I really wanted to do was write fiction, and the sale gave me the confidence to pursue my dream. So I took the plunge and decided to get my master's in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
The Revelation was my master's project, and after I finished it, I thought I'd send it off to a publisher and within a year or so be a rich and famous writer.
Two years later I finally sold it. For a whopping $4,000. A year after that, it finally came out. Which explains why there are all those terrible jobs on my resume!
JEANI: I’ve read many of your books. A lot of your fiction seems to involve a normal protagonist who is suddenly thrust into an abnormal situation by menacing, unfolding circumstances. In fact, a lot of your books take place in everyday, average settings that suddenly becomes anything but average. Do you look around places you have really visited and imagine “what if?”
BENTLEY: The ideas for most of my novels come from personal experience. As a writer, I've always been absurdly dependent on the mail, and while working for a small town weekly newspaper, I had a bizarre encounter with a postal worker. So I came up with the idea for The Mailman.
In that same Arizona town, I saw a huge chain store put a lot of local shopkeepers out of business and came up with The Store. Problems with insurance companies inspired The Policy. Problems with a homeowner's association inspired The Association. My own letter-writing proclivities gave me the idea for Dispatch.
So, really, most of my work involves situations in my own life that I deal with metaphorically and reflect through the lens of horror fiction.
JEANI: You are known and loved for your writings in the horror genre. For a while there, you branched out into suspense, such as with The Disappearance. Now with your newest book, The Haunted, you are back to your horror roots. Is horror your real love?
BENTLEY: I'm a horror writer. Always have been, always will be. But years ago, after the commercial failure of my second novel, The Mailman, my publisher told me that horror was dead in the marketplace.
I was contractually obligated to deliver a second book, and I was forced to submit sample chapters and an outline before the company would agree to publish my next novel. It was a wretched experience, and the non-supernatural book that came out of it, Death Instinct, wasn't very good.
It was then "suggested" to me that I write a police procedural, which was supposed to be the coming thing. Instead, I wrote The Summoning, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vampire novel, in order to get away from the publisher.
I continued on my merry way, writing horror.
A few years ago, the same situation again reared its ugly head. Sales of horror were down, the market was soft, and once more I was required to have my ideas approved by the publisher before receiving a contract.
I had a lot of ideas that I thought were good, but they wanted me to write something that was not supernatural. I did my best and wrote two such novels, His Father's Son and The Disappearance, but, let's face it, I'm not a suspense writer. It's not my forte.
I also don't do mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction....I write horror. That's who I am.
So I took a stand and wrote The Haunted. It's an honest-to-god horror novel, and I have to say I feel good about it. I'm back. I'm home. This is where I belong.
JEANI: Now you just know I have to ask this. Of all your books, which are your personal favorites and why?
BENTLEY: My favorite is probably The Mailman, because it was set in the small town in Arizona where I spent my summers. The house (in the book) was our house, the family was my family, and the situation was a slight exaggeration of one that I'd actually encountered. So in that way, it's probably my most personal novel.
I'm also partial to The Ignored, because it was fairly ambitious, and I think I pulled off what I set to do.
But, as many authors before me have said, they're all my children, and I love each and every one of them for who they are. Even the ugly ones. Even the crazy ones.
JEANI: You came up through the small presses, which is why you are kind to small presses such as The Horror Zine today. Do you feel that small presses can still help other writers’ careers?
BENTLEY: Definitely. If your stories appear in the small press, they may not be seen by a lot of people, but they will be seen by the right people.
Other authors and editors will read your work, and if it's good, the word will spread. You'll also start to amass writing credits, which look impressive when you're sending out query letters to publishers.
The small press is a stepping stone, but it's a very important stepping stone. I wouldn't be where I am today without the small press, which is why I try to help out fledgling editors and publishers whenever I can. In the horror field, this is the farm league for the major leagues, and it needs to be supported.
JEANI: My readers are also writers. Can you give them advice about where to get ideas for their plots and also about character development?
BENTLEY: Stephen King once said that the most common and annoying question he's asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?"
He's right. For me, ideas come from everywhere: things that happen to me, events in the news, places I go, sights I see.
But I can't tell you where you should get your ideas. As far as I'm concerned, if you can't think up a story, you shouldn't be a writer. If, after everything you see and hear on a daily basis, you stare blankly at a page and have no idea what to write about, it's time to give up and find something else to do with your life.
Similarly, the process of developing a character differs depending on each individual writer, and there's no one right way to go about it.
Many authors base their characters on people they know. One writer I know combines traits from various fictional characters he's read about and splices them into new creations.
For myself, I let the story dictate the characters. If my novel is set in a small town in Arizona, for example, I try to imagine what type of people would live in that town. What occupations would they have? What type of families would they have?
All of those variables also influence the development of a character. A divorced newspaper editor would have a different lifestyle and outlook than one who was a newlywed or one who was happily married with two kids. I do think there's some validity to the adage "write what you know," because a familiarity with the story's milieu will definitely help with populating the fictional world you create. But as I said, the process is different for everyone, and as a writer you have to figure out what works for you.
JEANI: Can you give my readers any pointers as to how they can polish and improve their work?
BENTLEY: I would be a terrible writing instructor, because I have no advice to give on any of those aspects of writing. One reason is because I don't polish and rewrite my work. It's not that I don't put a lot of thought into my fiction—I do—but the composition of the novel basically occurs in my head. So once it's on the page, it's pretty much set in stone.
The pulp fiction author Mickey Spillane was once asked how many times he rewrote each novel before publication. "Rewrite 'em?" he replied. "Hell, I don't even reread 'em!"
I'm sort of in that category.
JEANI: Do you recommend a literary agent? If so, how can they find one?
BENTLEY: When I was starting out, I went to a Robert McCammon book signing. He was one of my favorite authors, and I figured I'd hit him up for advice.
I'd finished my first novel, The Revelation, and I told him I had a lot of short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, I'd won a few awards, and now I was wondering how to go about getting my novel published.
His not particularly helpful advice was basically, "Get an agent, kid."
As luck would have it, I attended a Dean Koontz signing soon afterward. We'd both had short stories published in the same magazine, and he took the initiative to ask if I'd written anything longer. I admitted that I had a novel I didn't know how to sell, and he took down my phone number.
A few days later, he called, gave me the name of an agent and dictated the letter I should send to that agent. The agent was Dominick Abel, and he took me on as a client. He's been my agent ever since.
So yes, I recommend aspiring writers to get a literary agent. Although, since my path was fairly unique, I really don't have any practical advice on how to go about finding one.
JEANI: What do publishers look for when they consider a novel?
BENTLEY: They're following the latest trend. They're looking to jump on the bandwagon of whatever literary fad is hot at the moment.
So my advice is to never take into consideration what publishers are looking for when you write a novel. Because by the time you start and finish it, the trend may be played out.
Write what you want to write. Write what you love. If it's any good, there will be a publisher somewhere willing to take a chance on it. You'll have your artistic integrity and the beginning of a career.
JEANI: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
BENTLEY: Always eat your vegetables.
See the "unofficial" Bentley Little website HERE
Photo credits: Black and white: Jere Green and Shawn Handley; color: Wendy Li
About Bentley Little
Bentley Little is the author of numerous novels, short stories, articles and essays. He originally came up through small presses like us.
His most recent novel, titled The Haunted is a fast-paced, fresh take on the haunted house theme with enough twists to keep you reading long into the night. The Haunted is highly recommended by The Horror Zine as a "must read."
Bentley Little is notorious for not participating in anything on the internet, which makes any website interview elusive. The Horror Zine communicates with Bentley though mail delivered by the U.S. Post Office.