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NORMAN PARTRIDGE: In His Own Words

March 2001 Nominally by Paula Guran (but mostly by Norman Partridge)

"When you slap the covers closed on a Norm Partridge book, I don't want you to feel like you've been sitting in your easy chair for two or three hours. I want you to feel like you've been somewhere... and I'm the only guy who could take you there." -- Norman Partridge

[Note: When the mojo is just right an "interview" turns into a self-revelatory monologue by the subject. The mojo was right with Norman Partridge. I'll just go over to the bar and order another round of drinks while y'all get acquainted. - PG]

In a lot of ways, I feel like the All-American Boy. When I was a kid I loved hearing my dad tell ghost stories, I loved monster movies, I loved TV shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE. I couldn't get enough of that stuff. I was filling up the well, creatively speaking, and I knew pretty early on that I was built to be a storyteller. Really, that was the only thing I ever wanted to do.

Norman Partridge I grew up on Bloch and Bradbury, AM radio rock'n'roll, and drive-in movies. Actually, I spent a whole lot of time at the drive-in. A friend of mine's dad was the manager, and they actually lived on the lot. Their house faced the screen, and they had a speaker mounted on the wall. They could sit on their couch and watch movies through the living room window.

The place made a real impression on me. The guy who managed the snackbar was a hunchback. He drove a muscle car, gave us rides around the lot while we lay on the hood and held onto his windshield wipers. I swear to God I thought he'd kill us. At night, the drive-in was the perfect setting for horror movies. It was bordered on three sides by cemeteries. I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD there when I was a kid, and I was convinced that the dead were going to rise and lay siege to the drive-in. I didn't think the retractable tire spikes at the exit would keep them out. I thought I was going to end up as a midnight snack for some neighbor's dear departed.

I talk about the drive-in in the introduction to my new short story collection, THE MAN WITH THE BARBED-WIRE FISTS (Night Shade Books). It's the first time I've actually told those stories. I always thought that I'd work them into my fiction somehow, but I never quite managed it. Now I'm glad I didn't, because I like those stories the way I remember them. My wife says the intro has a kind of nostalgic Stephen King feel... only weirder. I'll go along with that.

cover I never really wrote about any of these things, until now.

I did write about the drive-in and the cemetery across the street. Much of the action in my first novel, SLIPPIN' INTO DARKNESS, took place there. But there weren't any buxom vampires in that book. No George Romero zombies. No Frankenstein or Dracula, no Dr. Phibes or Count Yorga or Blacula. There weren't any monsters at all.

Of course, there weren't any hunchbacks with muscle cars, either... There WAS a cemetery caretaker, but he was a harmless old guy. He didn't have a hideously scarred face, and he didn't lock up anyone in a mortuary viewing room or crematorium.

None of those things happened in my first novel.

None of those characters appeared.

But in a way, they were all there. Every one of them. Because they were inside me. If they hadn't been, I never would have written that book... or anything else.

I think I've got a pretty distinctive style. People know when they're reading a Norm Partridge story. I always say that I'm not a meat 'n' potatoes kind of writer. Anyone who reads popular novels is familiar with the "voice" I'm talking about. It's third person, shifts viewpoint characters, tosses in a description or metaphor now and then because its expected, but there's nothing distinctive about the voice. That's why I call it meat 'n' potatoes. In that kind of book, "voice" wears a straitjacket, and "story" is the sucker that strapped it on. Meat 'n' potatoes writers write books that are all about story.

I think story is essential. I mean, I write stories where stuff happens. But I wouldn't go so far as to say story is primary, and it always is in the hands of a meat 'n' potatoes writer.

Now, there's good meat 'n' potatoes. There's bad meat 'n' potatoes, too. But no matter how good that kind of stuff gets, you're never going to get past the ingredients. There's just a sort of blandness to it... but, hey, there's also a lot of people out there who gulp that stuff down and keep coming back for more.

cover I think anyone familiar with my books knows I don't work that way. You sit down to my dinner table, sooner or later your mouth is going to burn. I guess it's a reflection of the writers who influenced me--everyone from Ray Bradbury to Elmore Leonard. But a writer's voice is a weird creature. It's more than just influences run through an internal filter. It's viewpoint, it's attitude, it's philosophy. I think it's the heart of storytelling.

Now that doesn't mean I think style is my primary tool. I believe in telling a story. I believe in characters that aren't cardboard cutouts. But, for me, it's the style that makes the other stuff work. It's the descriptions, the metaphors, that make those characters and events come alive for the reader.

You open one of my books and give me a chance with you, I want to grab you by the throat. As a writer, I believe in going on the offense from jump. I've always felt that way. Poe talked about getting a reader to suspend his or her disbelief as an essential for establishing a kind of writer's authority. I'm all for that. I want to drag the reader into whatever world I've created, even if they might not want to make the trip. It's my job to show them the things that fill up that landscape, my job to introduce them to the characters that dwell within. I want the reader to understand those characters on a very basic level, to come to know what makes them tick. When you slap the covers closed on a Norm Partridge book, I don't want you to feel like you've been sitting in your easy chair for two or three hours. I want you to feel like you've been somewhere... and I'm the only guy who could take you there.

Music is a constant backbeat for me. Several of my stories take their titles from songs, and in most cases listening to that song was a point of departure for me. I didn't try to tell the same story the song did, but I tried to give my story the same feel.

My older brother had a garage band when I was a kid. This was the middle sixties, and they did a lot of surf instrumental stuff. They were called The Road Runners, and they had a pretty good following around the San Francisco Bay Area. Lots of nights I fell asleep listening to them practice --"Pipeline" makes a great lullaby! My wife's been in a lot of bands, too. One of them, Curse of Horseflesh, put out a killer CD a couple years ago.

cover A lot of the bands I really like are pretty much doing it on their own. I'm thinking of surf-hybrid bands like Los Straitjackets, Satan's Pilgrims, etc. They're working with smaller labels, and they're doing the kind of stuff they want to do the way they want to do it. In a way, it's kind of analogous to the horror small press scene, where both the audience and the writer are tuned in to the same frequency. Now, that doesn't mean the smaller approach is necessarily better--there's lots of crap put out by small record labels and there's lots of crap put out by the small press.

But sometimes the smaller approach really works. There are a lot of bands I discovered through those small labels. Some of them, like Southern Culture on the Skids, have gone on to bigger things. Some of them have disappeared entirely. But the small labels give a lot of bands a chance to be heard, and the net has made it easier than ever to find the good stuff.

Same goes for the small press. I found out about it when TWILIGHT ZONE magazine folded many moons ago. I started buying a little magazine called THE HORROR SHOW, and it was in those pages that I caught on to writers like Joe Lansdale and Poppy Brite. I came up the same way -- I wrote a bunch of stories for little magazines before I broke into the pro market. My first short story collection was published by a small press, and so was my first novel.

But let's face it -- writing is about communication. So is music. I'm glad I can sell a limited edition book to those 500 people who'll cough up the extra bucks so they can read my work, but I want a bigger audience. That's what I'm working towards. The trick is to do it on my terms. I've tried doing it the other way, but that didn't work for me. After being around for ten years and pretty much publishing everything I wrote during that time, I'm just not interested in jumping at those carrots New York waves in front of writers who are looking for a step up. That's not good for me, and that's not good for the people who follow my work.

I've done a lot of the things I set out to do when I started writing. I'm proud of what I've accomplished. But in a lot of ways, I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I want to go where my heart takes me, where my gut tells me I should go. I figure if I can do that and still get my work in front of an audience, I'm a lucky man.

cover Getting back to music, one of the first things I do when I get to work on a project is make a soundtrack. When I did SLIPPIN' INTO DARKNESS, I listened to a lot of seventies stuff, and I was surprised at how morbid some of those disco-era tunes really were. That music seeped into the book and made it better than it would have been without it. The Jack Baddalach books are what you might call surf-intensive, and I almost never work on a western without slapping some Ennio Morricone soundtracks onto the CD player. Right now, I'm writing a novel called THE ATOMIC HIGHWAY: '59 FRANKENSTEIN. It's got teenage monsters, giant bugs, and has a real 1950's drive-in sensibility. So the stereo's jumpin' with lots of badass rockabilly and do-wop. If things work out the way I want, you'll feel that Bo Diddley beat when you read this one. If I can channel a little bit of the nasty intensity of Bo's "Who Do You Love?" in this one, that'll be all right with me.

I've never really bought into horror as a genre. The glut of paperback originals in the eighties proved that didn't work. Horror doesn't really have the fan base to support a separate section in bookstores. It isn't like science fiction or mysteries. Take a look at any horror writers' convention and you can see that -- the writers outnumber the fans.

That said, I think horror actually has a broader mainstream appeal than most other genres. The mainstays of the genre -- King, Koontz, Rice, Straub, Barker, etc. -- aren't confined by genre labels. Their books are published as "fiction."

Here' the thing that bothers me. The writers I've named as genre mainstays are the same writers you'll find mentioned as such fifteen years ago. I have a hard time believing that no one's come along since then who might have matched their success if they'd been given the right kind of push and a chance to carve out their own territory. But, for whatever reason, that hasn't happened. I don't know if it will happen. Face it, publishers are businessmen. They want brand names. And why not? Brand names sell at Costco. But only so many brand names can fit on the bestseller list in the space of a year. It's an elite club.

Now, that doesn't mean there isn't good stuff out there. There is. You just have to know where to look for it. Right now the small press is stronger than it ever has been. A few publishers are having success with paperback originals. That's good for writers who are looking to develop a larger audience. But I don't think we're ever going to recapture the days when publishers were tossing paperback contracts at any horror writer who'd been in a couple anthologies. And you know what? It's probably better that we don't.

I haven't exactly followed one road as a writer. I keep veering off in other directions. But that's the way my mind works. Plus I get bored easily. Staking out new ground, trying something I haven't tried before--that's one thing that really gets me excited as a writer.

cover But there's certain stuff I'm always going to love. I'm always going to love horror, and dark mystery, and twisted suspense, and weird westerns, and stories set in the fifties. I think those are things I'll always come back to. But each time I return, I'm a little different as a writer. I'm older, I've tried other things in the meantime. So I think there's a constant process of reinvention going on, plus a change of perspective, however slight. That's one thing that keeps me moving forward.

That's one of the reasons I'm excited about THE MAN WITH THE BARBED-WIRE FISTS, my new short story collection that's due this summer from Night Shade Press. It's going to be my first doorstop book--twenty-plus stories, two new novellas, an introduction that explains how I became a writer at the drive-in movies, and a complete bibliography. I think anyone who reads BARBED-WIRE is going to get to know me pretty well. All my passions are in that book -- rock 'n' roll, B-movies, weird westerns, crime, and flatout horror. There's something for everyone, and I think anyone who reads BARBED-WIRE is going to see my genesis as a writer.

About that genesis... I was lucky coming up. I started out in small magazines, and I was good enough to break into the anthology market fairly quickly. This was in the early nineties, and anthos were really booming. A couple critics noticed my work and started giving me a push, same goes for a couple writers who were further up the food chain. I had a pretty good run going. My first short story collection won a Stoker Award, and at one point in the space of a few months I had the lead story in anthologies edited by Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite, and Joe Lansdale.

Then the whole anthology market crashed. But that was okay -- I was already trying to move into novels. I had a tougher time breaking in there. My first novel, SLIPPIN'INTO DARKNESS, was a pretty dark piece of business, and I couldn't get anyone in New York to touch it. Rich Chizmar took a chance on it with his small press. It was the first novel he published, and we sold out in about three weeks. One thing lead to another, and I ended up with a Stephen King quote. Things kept getting better.

cover I moved into novels. I did a couple of mysteries for Berkeley (SAGUARO RIPTIDE & THE TEN OUNCE SIESTA). Those were a lot of fun, Elmore Leonard kind of stuff with a double-shot of weird. Then I did a noir/horror novel for Subterranean Press (WILDEST DREAMS). A lot of people say that's my best book -- it's certainly my darkest -- but it's not the kind of thing New York would touch. And I did a Crow novel, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER, which was kind of fun. It was a challenge to blend James O'Barr's mythos with the kind of stuff I love, but I think it works. I wrote the book as a roadtrip through hell. Along with the Crow, you get a couple of supernatural-born killers in a '49 Merc, sepulchers by Westinghouse, a desert landscape straight out of a spaghetti western, a talking shrunken head, and maybe the weirdest Vegas wedding every put on paper. I think it's a fun ride. Jeff Conner, who oversees the Crow novels for Pressman Films, described WICKED PRAYER as "sort of like John Woo channeling Sergio Leone on peyote." I like that.

But one of the tough things about moving into novels is that they're definitely the big leagues for writers. New York offers writers a big chance for success, but there's an equally big chance to crash and burn. I mean, it's easy to get wrapped up in the New York game. Everyone in New York is looking for the next big thing. They want blockbusters. They don't want little books, or a series of books that'll build over a period of time. No. They want it all, right out of the box.

Writers think about that stuff every time they sit down at their word processor. It's impossible not to. But I think the best thing to do is forget all that stuff and think about the story you want to tell. That's the only way to get your story down on paper. You do it the other way and you're writing someone else's story... and I don't think that's a recipe for good work.

My wife, Tia Travis, is a writer, too. She's made a couple appearances in Datlow and Windling's YEAR'S BEST, and she's working on her first novel. It's great to have someone around the house who understands the nature of the game, and usually I bounce ideas off Tia before anyone else. She's also my first reader, and I think that keeps me honest. I really respect her talent, and just knowing that her in-box is the first stop for my manuscripts makes me work a little bit harder.

coverOf course, we go about writing in very different ways. Tia loves research, and her outlines are long and detailed. Me, I like to get to it as fast as possible -- I need to start writing and dig around to see if I've got anything worth pursuing in a serious way -- and I can't outline worth a damn. Most of the time I fly by the seat of my pants, jotting notes on 3x5 cards as I go. But it doesn't really matter how you get there. As long as I get the good stuff down on paper before I type THE END, I figure I've done my job.

So that's where I am. I want to tell my stories, whatever they are. I've got a couple of things in mind -- they'll be longer, more ambitious than the stuff I've tried before. I want to try some things that walk the line between horror and fantasy, some stories that weave through the present and the past. I want to spread out a little, see what'll happen when I hit page 400 or 500 in a manuscript. I'm still trying to figure out how to pull off all of the above, but I'm excited about trying. For me, that's always a good sign.

Me, right now I'm pretty happy with what I've got. That's the freedom to write the things I want to write, publishers who'll get my work into print, and an audience. I figure any writer who's got those three things doesn't have much to complain about.


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