The Deep End interview…with Mark Allan Gunnells
Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?
MAG: My pre-college years were rough. I was that geeky Stephen King kid, the butt of everyone’s jokes. It made school fairly traumatic for me. I didn’t do as well in school as I might have just because I hated going so much. In a way, that really helped me develop as a writer because I lost myself in fictional worlds. When I went to college, it was a whole different experience. I flourished, my grades were much better, and I was probably never more prolific. I became known around campus for my writing, and it was my first real experience feeling like a writer.
Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?
MAG: I was always aware that the chances of me making a living from my writing were slim, but that never made me question my passion or my desire to be a writer. So when I started college, my thinking was to find a job to pay the bills that I didn’t hate and would allow me time to write. Initially that was human services, but that proved to be so stressful and consuming it actually did have a negative impact on my writing. I ended up becoming a security guard, which does pay the bills, it is a job that I like, and it provides me ample time to write. Next to actually making my living writing, I feel it’s the best possible scenario.
Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?
MAG: I began submitting when I was just a teenager, with no success. In fact, I didn’t sell my first story until I was in my 30s. I was so accustomed to rejection that when I opened my email and got that first acceptance, at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I only made 15 bucks off that first sale, but honestly I was beyond ecstatic that someone was paying me money for something I made up in my head. I sold short stories to e-zines and magazines for several years while trying to put out my own book, but I wasn’t finding any publishers that were willing to take a chance on me. When Sideshow Press put out my first book, it was just unadulterated joy when I held it in my hands for the first time. And honestly, I’ve never really lost that. Each new book, when I get the acceptance and then when it is officially out, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. I hope I never lose that.
Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?
MAG: I don’t come from a big family of readers, but they are proud that I’m doing what I love. One thing all my friends and family have come to learn and accept is that anything can end up in one of my stories. Anything they tell me or do may be fodder for the fiction.
Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
MAG: Early on, it was without question Stephen King. His stories wove a spell around me that sucked me in totally. Reading his fiction inspired me, made me want to be a better writer. And honestly it still does. Clive Barker was also a huge influence because as a short story lover, he showed me you can really make a name for yourself with short fiction. Also, as a gay man, he showed me you could be open about who you are and still be successful. These days I also really admire people like Joe Lansdale and Neil Gaiman because they are not slaves to genre but write just whatever they are compelled to write. Anne Rice is also someone I admire, because she is clearly very passionate about her art and really inspires me to believe in myself and preserver.
Joe: Instead of just focussing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?
MAG: That’s a tough one; asking a parent to pick favourites. My novel The Summer of Winters is special to me because more than any other book, I put a lot of my childhood into that one. The settings are places of my past, the experiences of the character often mirror my own. It’s a very personal book in that way. I also have a really strong connection with Where the Dead Go to Die, which I co-authored with Aaron Dries, because there is a character in there based on my own mother. It allowed me to put all the things I love about her down on paper. I also have a short story entitled “Jam” (which was the first story I ever sold) that I think really represents me as a writer; it’s just the bizarre but somewhat humorous kind of story that appeals to me.
Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?
MAG: I don’t do target word counts. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself, and make writing into a chore. When I sit down to write, my only goal is to write. Some days I get a lot out, other days not as much, but on the days when the output isn’t as great, I refuse to beat myself up over it. Nothing good comes from that.
Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?
MAG: I don’t shy away from any topics, but some topics are harder to write about. Sadistic violence, abuse of children… They can be painful to write about, but if a story calls for that, I don’t turn away. I will say, action-heavy scenes aren’t always my favourite thing to write because I worry about the mechanics of things, and if I’m getting bogged down describing each element that it takes away some of the excitement.
Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?
MAG: Writing is my passion, but I fill my life with many things. I love live theatre, I love hiking, I love travelling, I love reading and watching movies. That said, even when it’s not in the forefront of my mind, somewhere my writer instincts are still at work because I’ll get ideas for stories almost anywhere. In the theatre, on a hike, on a vacation, while reading another book, while watching a movie. Hell, I get a lot of ideas in the shower, so I guess the creative wheels are always turning.
Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?
MAG: I’ll tell you one of the most interesting instances of people I met while researching a book. I was writing a book that dealt with witchcraft, but I didn’t want to make it a cartoonish version. I wanted to ground it. My fiancé was friends on Facebook with some Wiccans in our area, so we arranged to meet. We went out back to their “circle” and they allowed me to ask anything I wanted, they talked a lot about what Wicca means to them and how they use it. It was actually quite a fascinating evening and I was glad I got to do it. The things I learned from them actually informed the story, inspired aspects that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. When the book came out, I sent them a copy as thanks. I still communicate with them online, but we haven’t been back to their circle since.
Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?
MAG: I’ve learned that the writing community—specifically for me, the horror writing community—is full of generous souls that are willing to reach out, give advice, offer encouragement. It feels like a family, and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Joe: How did being author change you as a person?
MAG: This may sound strange, but I believe being a writer has made me more empathetic. The very act of envisioning other lives, trying to inhabit them, trying to understand them, makes it easier to put myself in the shoes of others and consider things from their perspective.
Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?
MAG: A gentleman named Larry Meier reached out to me on social media, telling me he had read some of my books and I had become one of his favourite authors. It was one of the first times someone I didn’t already know contacted me about my books, and he continues to buy and comment on everything I put out. I’m forever grateful to him. Fellow author John R. Little also said some beautiful things about my first short story collection when it was released. I didn’t know him at all, and knowing that another writer thought enough of my work to spread the word touched me absurdly.
Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?
MAG: I just want to continue writing stories that I love, that I’m passionate about, stories that entertain me. And hopefully entertain readers. I’d love to expand my readership, and I definitely want to keep improving my craft, but above all I just want to still be excited about what I’m writing.
Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
MAG: I want to be remembered as a writer who had a great passion for his stories, and I hope that my stories continue to entertain people long after I’m gone.