Interview With Chad Clark Author of Tracing The Trails

Chad A. Clark


I really liked Chad A. Clark's book, Tracing The Trails, A Constant Readers Reflections on the Work of Stephen King. 

TSK: 
Your book moves us quickly through the Stephen King universe.  What could have been thousands of pages, is actually a tight, easy to read work.  Was it difficult to keep the word count down?

Chad A. Clark:
It helped a lot to have this start out as a blog project because, if for no other reason it forced a certain amount of brevity on my part. Being an unknown author I knew that there would be a limit to the amount of words from me that people would put up with. It seemed like 1000 to 1500 words ended up being a pretty solid sweet spot for the reviews to fall in to. IT was the only case where I had to employ multiple posts. I wanted the reviews to be enjoyed by dedicated constant readers but also accessible to the more casual fans. I also didn’t want to telegraph too dramatically the books I enjoyed less by having some reviews be thousands of words long while others only a few hundred. The length I settled on seemed to give enough room to stretch my legs but not so long that it scared away those who might be less dedicated. 

TSK: 
How different is the book from the blog posts?

Chad A. Clark: 

The reviews themselves aren’t dramatically different. The only one that I really went back in and rewrote was Pet Sematary, because of the experience of re-reading the book after having kids myself. I did go through all the reviews and give them several additional editorial passes. I also enlisted the assistance of Duncan Ralston from Shadow Work Publishing as the editor for the project.

The book is structured differently from the blog. When the reviews posted originally, I simply took each title in order of publication. For the book, however, I grouped the books into sections of novels, short story collections, novella collections and Richard Bachman titles. I also included a section of bonus material. The content in this section was never on the blog and included guest reviews as well as various King related essays.

And finally, I should acknowledge the beautiful introductory essay provided to me for use from Richard Chizmar, a friend of King and who has co-written a book with him as well. I was incredibly touched that Richard was willing to be a part of this project.





TSK: 
I was surprsed Gwendy’s Button Box got reviewed with the novels.  What determined for you a Novella (Blockade Billy) verses a novel?

Chad A. Clark: 
Yes you’re correct that Gwendy’s Button Box would be more correctly categorized as a novella. Elevation is also a novella and there are a lot of stories within his short story collections that are novellas, such as “The Mist”, “The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet” and “Dolan’s Cadillac.”

I resolved the issue by categorizing the stories based on how they were released. The three stories I just listed were released as one of many in a collection of short stories so that was how I categorized them. King has also published several collections of specifically novella length stories. While Skeleton Crew and Night Shift have stories of all size and length, books like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight all follow a format of containing four novella-length stories.  So those titles were grouped into their own category.

Books like Gwendy and Elevation, while they were not novels, were released on their own as individual titles. For that reason I grouped them alongside the other novels. A lot of this is just kind of up to judgment and perspective. I also decided to place Hearts In Atlantis with the novels, even though that’s more of a short story collection. That was just how I saw the book.

TSK: 
I agreed wholeheartedly with your less than enthusiastic responses to both Firestarter and Cujo.  I’ve been a concerned that his upcoming book, The Institute, has echoes of Firestarter.  Think that’s possible?

Chad A. Clark: 
It would certainly seem that The Institute could be a return to the Shop, the nefarious institution detailed in Firestarter. I would actually be interested in that aspect, although I suspect that in the post-X Files world we live in, the plot could come across largely as ground already explored. Whether or not Charlie McGee makes an appearance, who knows? I enjoyed his last two books quite a bit so I’m willing to be open to this one.


TSK:
You gave two sections to Kings massive novel, IT.  You described the way Derry takes on characteristics of the monster.  I had not thought about that.  What you did not discuss, at least thus far, is the most controversial scene in the novel – the boys sleeping with Beverly one after another.  Did that scene give you any pause?  Did you know it was coming, or did it catch you by surprise?

Chad A. Clark:
Well originally on the blog I dealt with IT in three parts, with the third part dealing with this scene particularly. My thoughts on the subject are actually in the book but you haven’t gotten there yet, it’s in the supplemental material. Suffice to say, my take on that scene is that it serves as an important metaphor to show the emotional trauma of what the Loser’s Club experiences. That while they physically survived their ordeal, they still suffered the emotional death of their childhood and innocence. So the scene you’re referring to, while difficult to read, shows both their forced transition into adulthood as well as how their love for each other ultimately defeats the darkness.

TSK:
Okay, I found it. . . nice article on the controversial IT scene.

Chad A. Clark: 
Like I said, I can totally sympathize with people hating that scene. I think I was just more able to separate myself and evaluate the significance of the scene in terms of what it represented about the lives of those kids. With all the horrible violence they had to endure, getting upset over a moment like this seems to be ducking under the actual horrors they had to endure.


TSK: 
Christine was a blast.  A total blood bath.  When I blogged my way through it, I kept a running death count.  I appreciated your explanation of why King did not rewrite the novel from just one perspective, choosing instead to stay close to his original vision of the book.  You noted that King is vague as to what exactly possess the car – the spirit of the original owner, or a demon.  Just for fun, pick a side.  Demon or ghost – is Christine Haunted or Possessed?

Chad A. Clark:
I’ve actually been thinking it might be time to do a re-read Of Christine. I’m with you, it’s a less appreciated title in his catalog but it’s one that I love. And the ambiguous origins of the car are a big part of what makes it more frightening for me. I suppose if I had to pick, my guess would be that the car is possessed by some kind of demonic presence. That seems to be more King’s bag than just a simple haunting. But here’s a possibility to bounce around your brain pan. Is it possible that the car could be both possessed and haunted? Considering the multi-perspective of the narrative, this would seem to be in line with the overall vibe of the book.

TSK:
You seem to have a special love for the Talisman.  I’ve got to level here: I never made it through that book.  I lose interest each time.  And I’m not alone.  George Beahm in his original Stephen King companion confessed exactly the same thing.  So what’s the magic we’re missing?

Chad A. Clark:
I don’t know if there is a magic to Talisman that you’re missing. Or better put, I think I would echo what King has said in that books are a uniquely portable magic. The relevance for me here is that my magic could be completely different from your magic.

All that aside, I’ll try and explain why I love the book. It’s one of the more unique stories from this time period and I think it serves nicely as one that is somewhat adjacent to the Dark Tower saga. Not that you need one to enjoy the other but I think it definitely helps if your brain has been brined somewhat in Roland’s world and his quest. I love that the book has the majesty of an epic fantasy but also with some more gritty and realistic aspects. I don’t know where Stephen King ends and Peter Straub begins but this combination  worked pretty well for me. I can see how people could find it a bit of a slow starter but there’s some beautifully vivid and terrifying imagery in there, as well as some cool representations of the duality of our own natures. The book definitely isn’t for everyone but I’m a fan of it.

TSK:
You expressed twice in the book your personal discomfort as both a writer and a reader about the use of real tragedies in fiction.  With King, this issue came up in your review of 11/22/63 and later with the short story, The Things They Left Behind.  First, I understand your discomfort.  I stopped writing a book because it moved to scenes that involved a real (famous) murder.  And I thought, “Wait, a lady died here.  I can’t trivialize this.”  How far do you press this view?  Because I got a sense, and here’s your chance to correct me, that even historical fiction makes you uncomfortable.  Are you okay with a book like the Grapes of Wrath, that is driven by the national tragedy of the Dust Bowl? 

 Chad A. Clark:
I wouldn’t say that I have a problem with historical fiction because in that case, you are dealing more with general issues and the experiences of people as opposed to a specific event. Usually when I see an actual event featured, that ends up becoming the center around which the entire book orbits. Writing a story set against the backdrop of the American Dustbowl is one thing. An example of what I’m talking about took place following the infamous disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014. Within a week or two I came across an ad for a book that had clearly been thrown together that week, in the interests of selling books off the notoriety of an actual tragedy. That’s the kind of thing that makes me feel wrong for having spent money on it.

TSK: 
You argue that King’s earlier, popular novels built a foundation of readers that would basically put up with some later, weaker, novels.  For instance, you suggest that if King had started with Dolores Cliaborne (one of my favorite novels) that King’s career would not have sky rocketed.  I would agree wholeheartedly.  His great success gave him the power to go back and revise the Stand, restoring the novel.  I’m curious if there are any other books you wish King would go back and. . . well, fix.  (I suggest that if King can give us the unedited version of The Stand, an edited tighter version of Tommyknockers would be welcome from many of us.)

Chad A. Clark: 
You and I are in agreement on this one in that the title I would like to see get a revision is Tommyknockers. I think the concept is good, it’s  just that the execution doesn’t really work for me. It goes off into so many different directions and the lack of a clear protagonist leaves the plot without anything to ground the book. King himself stated in an interview that he thinks there’s a good 350-page novel in there.

Along similar lines, I would like it if Cujo was much shorter. Again, there just seems to be too much narrative insulation, plot threads that don’t go anywhere. I would cut anything that isn’t in the car or from the dog’s perspective.

There were a handful of other titles which I was more disappointed with, such as the regulators, the Colorado Kid, Lisey’s Story and Sleeping Beauties. But Cujo and Tommyknockers are the two big examples where I feel like my lack of enjoyment was simply deriving from the excess narrative that could be easily trimmed away.



TSK:
You mentioned more than once dissatisfaction with Kings later villains.  What are some of your favorites? (Of the later villains)

Chad A. Clark:

Well sure, a great villain is essential for a great story and King for the most part has really excelled at this aspect of writing. You need to have conflict in order for the book to be interesting so for me, the villain is almost more important than the protagonist. And as King has stated in his own work on the subject of writing, the key is to remember that the villains rarely think of themselves along those lines. To them They are the stars of their own personal stories.

Big Jim Rennie is probably my favorite from his batch of more recent villains.  I find him terrifying because he feels so normal, so at home in the small town setting. He doesn’t see himself as a monster. He sees himself as  being just as righteous as the protagonists.

TSK:
You seem to think less King’s work from the 1990's and his current output.  Is that a fair assessment? 

Chad A. Clark:
I think it would be fair to say that if you looked at Stephen King’s books over a specific time period and calculated a percentage of which titles I loved, that number for the seventies and eighties would be much higher. Many of the books of his I have been most let down by have been post-1990 but there have been a ton of titles in the more modern years I have loved: 11/22/63, Under The Dome, Duma Key, The Outsider, The Green Mile, Wizard and Glass and Desperation, to name a few. I will always have a special place for the earlier books because that was the era I cut my teeth on. But I have appreciated all stages of Stephen King’s career.

TSK:
I liked your explanation of what makes a sequel (the James Bond movies example was helpful.)  You just read a big heap of Stephen King; are there any novels you wish King would write a sequel to?  Any universes you’d like to see him return to?

Chad A. Clark:
I don’t know if there are really any universes or books specifically that I would like to see him return to. I guess there has been talks of a third Talisman book that has been in the works but held off due to Peter Straub’s poor health. I would like to see the conclusion to the Jack Sawyer tale. I’d also like to see a return to the Dark Tower universe, maybe in which he explores some of the history of Mid World. The battle of Jericho Hill, for example. I know the comics have taken a stab at these but I think I’d prefer a proper novel from the man, himself.

TSK:
I appreciated your comment that Needful Things can be seen as a parable of modern forces driving us apart as a people and culture.  (My words, summarizing what I got from your review of Needful Things.)  Do you think King continues to clearly show that divide, or has he moved too far into the realm of politics to clearly accomplish that again?

Chad A. Clark: 
I know that a lot of people have been turned off by King’s politics and with his active Twitter platform. I’ve never really cared that much, one way or the other, and for me I’ve never been one for celebrity culture. I’m a fan of Stephen King’s writing, not Stephen King, specifically. I also think that celebrities have just as much right to expressing their personal opinions as the rest of us. I’ve always been put off by the attitude of, “Go sit in the corner and be quiet until I want you to do that thing I like.”

As for the rest of your question, King’s most recent book, Elevation, deals quite a bit with what you’re describing. Not necessarily in the sense of people being led away from their reason and morality but in the increasing divide between people over social issues.

I think Stephen King always has the ability to drop a great book on us. He’s demonstrated that consistently and frankly, I suspect he was just as politically motivated in the Reagan and Bush eras as he is now. It’s just that social media has amplified everything and opened our eyes to a side of him that has likely always been there. Read the epically long rant against nuclear power in Tommyknockers and you can get a sense of what I mean.



TSK:
You obviously liked the end of the Dark Tower series.  I think it was courageous of you to take clear stands on things, even when controversial.  It made the book more interesting.  But let me ask a question off topic from the books – the movie.  I think King fans universally agree it was terrible.  A friend of mine offered the opinion that the movie only picks up where the books ended, on Roland’s second quest.  First, what did you think of the movie? Second, do you think King’s unusual ending of the series was the justification for the movie?

Chad A. Clark:
I don’t think I would agree that the movie was universally disliked.  It’s just that those that did dislike it were extremely vocal about it. And I get it. The studio didn’t do a great job publicizing the film and as a result many people were confused about what the movie was. I think most fans would rightfully expect multiple films in adapting the Dark Tower. Even trimming things back, you’d need at least four or five movies. I actually think the plan from ages ago would have worked great - three movies with a short television series between each. That, sadly, never came to be.

I think that what drove much of the decisions in terms of the kind of movie we got was simply practical economics. The Dark Tower series has been very popular and has a devout fan base but when you’re talking about a film you’re going after new fans as well. And I think most would agree that the Dark Tower can’t really be adapted into movies along the lines of Harry Potter or Twilight of the Hunger Games, which can be better marketed to a younger audience. I can sympathize with studio fears that might have existed that the Dark Tower would bring in more of a niche audience. We learned a lesson from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that having a successful book doesn’t automatically mean big box office numbers. Hard-rated R franchises aren’t really a hot item for studio execs.

The internet went nuts when it found out that only one movie was being made. Lost in all the noise was the tidbit that there was a possibility of more films if the first was successful enough. It was all in our hands.

And we know how that worked out.

I’m not going to bemoan anyone for not liking the movie. I really do get it and I understand how invested people can feel. I started on this trail with Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy nearly thirty years ago. And if you go into this movie expecting the books you are setting yourself up for disappointment. I liked the film as I see it more like the new series, Castle Rock. It’s inspired by King’s work but it isn’t exactly a perfect carbon transfer. If you go into this film looking for an entertaining story, spun in the warm blanket of Stephen King’s universe I think you’re much more likely to enjoy it.



TSK: 
I appreciated your defense of the IT miniseries.  I thought so long as the camera stayed on the kids, the story was great; but as soon as we went to adults, everything fell apart.  What’s funny is, they marketed it with the adult stars; those kids should have gotten way more credit for that.  Do you think the miniseries still has a fan base, or are we the last hold outs on that?

Chad A. Clark:
It’s hard to market child actors to the general public because most people won’t know who they are or reflexively roll their eyes at the sight of kids in movies. Remember that we were decades away from the Stranger Things phenomenon. It’s a lot easier to push people’s interests with the likes of Tim Curry, John Ritter, Annette O’Toole, Harry Anderson and Richard Thomas. And by the way, I do agree that the kids portion of the miniseries felt more fleshed out and was of a much greater quality. The adults portion just felt rushed and didn’t come out as well.  Why that ended up being the case? Who really knows.

I have a special place in my heart for the mini series, as I suspect I was at right about the perfect age and context to watch it when it first aired. Context is everything. It dictates so much of how we react to the movies we watch and the books we read. Your perspective and expectations and point of view as you’re sitting there in the theater or in your living room makes a massive difference in your ability to enjoy it.

I am willing to concede that there were faults to the movie and that it hasn’t necessarily aged well. I think that if you are of the right generation and you are coming back to the movie armed with your earlier memories of loving it, you’re a lot more likely to still be able to appreciate it. However, if you’re of a younger generation and you would be coming to this for the first time, I really wouldn’t recommend it.  So I suppose in a sense, we are sort of the last gasping guard of people who really appreciate the movie, and not just for Tim Curry‘s performance. But, to each their own. It’s difficult to make a movie that requires so much in terms of special effects and to make that movie have a timeless feel to it.

TSK:
Is it fair to say you don’t like first person stories?  Or is it just that you don’t like it when it’s first person, but the person is talking to someone else, making the reader a third party.  (?)  I thinking that more than once you expressed frustration with scenes that are told as if they’ve already happened, and thus the reader doesn’t quite get to experience them.  Am I summing it up right? 

Chad A. Clark: 
Not exactly.  I’m not as much of a fan of first person but not really for the reasons you’re describing. The inherent disadvantage of stories told in the first person is that by design, you’re stuck inside the mind of the protagonist. So take a book like The Body and you find that if Gordie wasn’t there to witness something, it wasn’t in the book. It means that a lot of the great characters from the movie were reduced significantly because of the limited scope of the narrative voice. Stand By Me worked better as a movie because we got to see more.

What I think you’re talking about and what I have referenced at times is stories written heavily in exposition. What that means is that, instead of witnessing an event in the story as a reader, you have to simply read a description given to you by either the narrator or one of the characters. Dolores Claiborne is a great example. It’s told in the first person but it’s also heavily expository. We don’t get to witness any of the key events of Dolores’ life, we simply get her description of them. I found this a lot in King’s later short stories as well. I’d prefer to be there as events are happening, not just getting fed the recollections of a secondary character. You feel like the writer is keeping you at arms length and you feel detached from the story. As a result, major twists and turns often come off as a bit on the dry side. If you don’t feel like you’ve been immersed in the universe of the story, it’s hard to feel invested in it.

Let me put it this way. Would you rather read Pet Sematary or have me describe the story to you?




TSK:
What are some books you’ve written?

Chad A. Clark: 
Here’s the rundown on me. In 2014 I published my first book, Borrowed Time : and other tales. It consisted of four short stories and two novellas. It was a good first, hard lesson on publishing and how difficult this industry can be. This was followed in 2015 by A Shade For Every Season, a collection of flash fiction. 2016 would be a busier year for me as it would see my first novel, an apocalyptic tale titled Behind Our Walls (audible). In September of that year I released a supernatural novella, Down The Beaten Path.

My most productive year by far came in 2017. After lackluster sales, I decided to take Borrowed Time off the market and sell the stories individually. I released the four shorts as kindle singles and one of the novellas would be released that year as a standalone titled, Yesterday, When We Died. I would also put out a second collection of flash fiction, Two Bells At Dawn and a sci-fi  /horror novella, The Child At The End Of Time. 

In 2018, Dark Minds Press out of the UK released my monster tale novella, Winter Holiday, which was followed shortly after by a gritty novella thriller from Shadow Work Publishing, titled Winward. That summer would see the follow up to my post-apocalyptic novel, titled From Across Their Walls (audible). And at the end of the year, I would officially enter into the non-fiction realm with my book, Tracing The Trails : A Constant Reader’s Reflections On The Work Of Stephen King. That book was the culmination of a blog project that had been a part of my life for several years.

That brings us pretty much up to date. Just last month I released the conclusion to my Behind Our Walls trilogy - For Walls Do Crumble and I have my final collection of flash fiction due out by the end of the year.



TSK:
What’s the favorite book you’ve written? (I know, it’s like asking about your favorite child.)

Chad A. Clark:
Pick my favorite book of mine? Sure, no problem. How much time do we have?

In an attempt to bridge the gap between pride and humility, I will restrict my answer somewhat. First of all, I just published the third book of my post-apocalyptic trilogy. This consists of Behind Our Walls, From Across Their Walls and For Walls Do Crumble. What I like about the stories is how the camera of the narrative zooms in and makes the books about the human experience. These aren’t techno-thrillers designed to hyper-analyze the mechanics of an apocalypse. This was about the characters and their drive to survive. I felt like the angle and perspective of the stories were pretty special. And I was especially happy about how I was able to design the books in such a way that (I think) you can read them in pretty much any order and still follow along.

In addition to this, I’m also proud of my recent novella, Winward (audible). And this goes with the theme here because it’s my one book that was really heavily and directly influenced by Stephen King. For as much as I love his book, Desperation, I have also found myself wishing the story had stayed grounded in the terrifying character of the small town sheriff gone crazy. Winward is the story of a couple traveling to meet old friends. What they find ends up plunging them into a pretty fun and wild story. I was very proud on the day that the highly regarded Ginger Nuts of Horror website rated Winward as one of the best books of 2018.

TSK: If you were asking the questions, what would you ask you?

Chad A. Clark: Well, I’m not really sure. That question seems to lead me off in a number of different potential directions with all of them being at least a bit narcissistic. People love to talk up their achievements as well as how awesome they are. And it isn’t like I don’t have those thoughts. There’s plenty that I’m proud of. But I thought I’d go a different route and talk about what I have been the most disappointed with in my decision to be an author.

In my experience, very little opens your eyes to how insignificant you are than publishing a book. Imagine a vast field covered in six feet of newly fallen snow. Now imagine taking your one, special snowflake and placing it atop the rest. Are you expecting a parade? Accolades? Someone saying something nice about you?

Because that’s probably not going to happen.

It’s not like I expected to set the world on fire. I wasn’t expecting to be the next Stephen King or to suddenly find my name topping the New York Times best sellers list. I wasn’t expecting to be able to quit my job and support my family, just from being an author.

But as each day passes and more new books join the pile, it feels more and more like writing into the void. That all you’re doing is releasing artistic work that barely anyone cares about. It’s a torpedo to the broad side of your confidence and self-esteem to log into your Amazon account and see how few books you have sold. Or when you post about a new book in social media and get almost as much interest as you might for farting into the wind. It’s hard to ignore the flash-fires of heartbreak, frustration and jealousy.

It disappoints me that so little of what I try seems to work. That so few people out there seem to want to read my work. I’ve said at times that publishing makes me feel like tap water. Nobody hates tap water, necessarily. But people also aren’t exactly crawling over each other to get tap water, either.

I’ve tried to take inspiration from the image of Stephen King, precariously balancing a borrowed typewriter on his lap in a trailer, banging out what would become some of the most successful books of the twentieth century, one letter at a time. I have to think that even he was scared at times. Was sure that he wasn’t worth the ink his machine was filled with.

I can’t be driven by the phantom of the “best seller”. I can’t set destinations for myself to which no roads can ever lead. I love storytelling. And at the end of the day, that has to be my North Star. The possibility that out there in the unseen distance, someone is picking up one of my books and has wrapped themselves up in it, maybe taking some of what I have taken from the likes of King and Tolkien and so many others. I am so grateful when I read a positive review of my work, not just for the self-delusional feeling I get but from the basic notion that someone looked at my book and said, “I want to read that.” The fact that that is happening at all makes me feel that I’m coming ahead at least a little.

I often think about what I would say to aspiring writers looking to launch themselves into this journey, if they even wanted to hear it from me. I think it would be that nobody owes you success. You can’t wait for success like it’s some kind of external event. Success has to be defined from within. If you do this, it has to be about making your art, whatever that art might be. And don’t hesitate to call it art. Calling your writing “art” isn’t about doing so with the permission of others. If you are reaching into yourself to craft something that could only come into being through your soul and your sweat and labor, you’re an artist. And your career as an author has to be exclusively about your art. Not how many people have seen it.

Do I wish more people gave a shit about my writing? Of course I do. But I have to accept that that either will happen or it won’t. I can’t bring the sky down just by climbing up to the top of the highest building and screaming at it. I have to constantly remind myself what drew me into all of this.

Books.

Stories.

I need to remember that, even when it seems like no one else is listening. I have to remember how cool it feels to be able to create those things that I loved so much as a kid. I have to remember the heat in my stomach from the thrill and excitement I felt along with the recitation of a few simple words.

It was a dark and stormy night.

(Chad A. Clark's author page HERE)

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