April 2021 4th Circle: Interview with Lawrence Berry
DESI D: What is your favorite line in a book/movie? And why?
LARRY BERRY: The worm that often destroys us is the temptation to agree with our critics by Thomas Harris, Hannibal. This serpent’s tooth of cynicism serves as a reminder to be an unrepentant rebel when you sit in your writing chair. It is more important to write from core memories than to follow anyone’s advice, no matter how well-meant. To be an original is uniquely American, and from Jack Kerouac to H. P. Lovecraft it is the original talents I admire and value.
DESI D: As a writer, why horror? And what is your writing process when working on a new story? Pantser? Plotter? Or somewhere in between?
LARRY BERRY: Why horror? I was an outstanding school crossing guard. In my hometown of Salina, Kansas, Oakdale Elementary awarded me a pass to the Strand Theater each Saturday to watch the triple feature matinee they put on for the kids in town. My mother didn’t know that these were horror films (I don’t think any of the mothers did—these passes were a great 6-hour babysitter). The pass was good for three years, and I saw every horror film ever made. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it certainly was 148 films later.
As to how I write, it’s a different approach than what is taught now. Edward Bryant and I had the same writing instructor in college, Vance Aandahl. He was a highly regarded science fiction writer at the time—he’s forgotten now. This class led Ed to create the mosaic technique. For me, I learned to write from emotion—any emotion, especially the negative, hurtful circumstances in our lives. In creating a mosaic (art assembled from tiny fragments of tile or marble), you begin at the center and write/sculpt outward following a modified center (linear frames/outlines orientated from the gravitational center—the middle of the story). In the present day, I’ve stayed with finding uniquely powerful remembrance and use it as a kind of a primal hemi engine, which changes with each season of stories—in 2020, I wrote 87 short stories—I guess that was a good emotional crank. This emotion can be anything, but it’s never the subject of the story. It’s a gritty, unvarnished mindset, really. Once rolling, I use Ed’s mosaic technique to create a simple outline as I’m working—not so much in the short form, but in novellas almost always. Vance taught us never to read the story we were working on more than six times and write it in one sitting—for a novella, this has meant 20-hour writing binges and overdosing on Folger’s. That counts as one read. For the next five readings/revisions—we rotate reading from the end to the front to keep the start of the tale from becoming over-polished. The sixth reading is a polish, and we read it from the end to the beginning, and then front to back like a reader would. To misquote Mary Shelley, a tale is a machine. The more artistic writers might disagree, but a well-made tale functions in a mechanical way to create an emotional experience—the same emotional satiation we felt as children when we found our first good book.
DESI D: What author has been your biggest inspiration to your writing? And why?
LARRY BERRY: This changes over time as all are tastes do. As a kid growing up in rural Colorado, I never saw a person drink wine until college. Now I subscribe to a number of vineyards for a set number of Pinot Noir cases a year. In the beginning, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard’s horror were so good that I often forgot to eat. I’m a contemporary of Stephen King and published in Cavalier at the same time he did. All young writers see themselves as visionaries in terms of talent and drive—but Stephen King, in those early years, broke my heart with his talent more times than Wilma Wyatt, my first girlfriend. The story that kicked my liver loose was Battleground. To give you an idea of what publishing was like then—Cavalier paid $200 on acceptance and an additional $50 if you made the best-of Christmas annual—Stephen published 28 stories in Cavalier before his first novel. I had one story make the annual and considering who was writing then and how good they were, it may have been my finest hour. Even back then, Stephen was a great literary student—he’d read every great writer and learned from Richard Matheson, John Farris, Jack Finney, C. L. Moore, and of course, the true black heart of modern horror—Lovecraft.
It was really Stephen that put a story’s characters in a genuine, working-class contemporary setting and ended Edgar Allan Poe’s long reign of affluent, often noble-bred, mono-obsessed characters, set in creepy, castle-ruins. Leslie Whitten, Matheson, Finney, and Robert Bloch were all heading in that direction, but Stephen’s characters were the first to know what a McDonald’s happy meal was and what it was like to have a bored, unhappy, no-longer-hip wife on a long car trip in the 1970s. The writers who came next, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, made this a staple, but in 1973 it was revolutionary. If you want to know how good Stephen is because his talent can be deceptive, try and do a storyboard breakdown of Salem’s Lot. There are over a hundred characters, dozens of subplots, woven together into one scream of primal horror. I consider Salem’s Lot, Hell House, Dr. Adder, and The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward each and all perfect horror novels. There are very few works at this level and they can never be duplicated.
So, yes, H. P. Lovecraft taught me to love horror as he did. Stephen King changed my sense of story-world by putting horror in a modern setting true to life. But this is the beginning, not the end of the graffiti carved into every writer’s heart—Ray Garton’s Live Girls and Lot Lizards, Ray Russell’s Dr. Sardonicus, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, Wilson’s Repairman Jack, and the pale king himself Pendergast, all have proven to be essential and formative.
DESI D: What is it about the art of storytelling that excites you? And, of course, what is the next story we can look forward to reading from you?
LARRY BERRY: Good question.
I have eight sales pending publication—I began to sour on sales of my stories going into the inventory of one of a number of editor-publishers for eventual publication. In each case, I was paid for a period of publication, usually two years. However, many editors are waiting for a stable market—with each successful book selling around 250 copies, timing matters. The most certain and perhaps the best tale I’ll publish in 2021 will be in Weirdbook: The Crate From Leng. I have found that writing and selling short fiction, even a lot of short fiction, comes with an invisibility potion. As a writer, you are doing what you should be doing—seeing your stories published in great anthologies, sometimes award-winning collections—but this doesn’t move the dial with 99% of the reading public. There’s also the issue of word count—quite often, the editor wants you to hit a word count so they can construct their collection with some balance. In general, this is 1,000 to 3,500 words. Write enough of these, and you won’t be able to write longer pieces—something I saw happen to many writers producing work for the men’s magazines in the 70s and 80s.
Somewhat like C. L. Moore’s favorite length and preferred resolution, I’ve gravitated naturally to writing longer word counts—8,000 to 12,000 words (which is sometimes called a novelette). Good luck finding a publisher searching for this length.
Currently, I’m working on a multi-book agreement to publish a great many stories and novellas over the next three years on a variety of platforms. The publisher has an innovative take on word count and story build, much like the unprecedented design Quirk Publishing brought to Grady Hendrix’s novels. They are geared toward terror and suspense rather than the conventional horror published today. The difference between horror and terror is small. Horror, in both fiction and film, is event-based—think Jason movies. Terror relies on character and character-driven plots—think Hannibal. Thomas Harris’ latest book, Cari Mora, is a testament to character-driven terror as an art form and is a book I wish I had written.
When you write from remembrance and the symphonies of emotion we feel, celebrate, suffer, and endure, all you really have is character. No contract has been signed, so we’ll see.
LARRY BERRY: Bonus/Current Working Emotion: The most haunting things in my life currently are the memories of former girlfriends who have been haunting, showing up on my front step as if they need to complete a circuit of life and energy. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not. Remembering failed love affairs are painful. You have to work hard to find the greatest hits of your time together, the best remembrance of the finest days. There wasn’t a lot to work with, and I knew it when I invited her in.
We met at a LoDo bar years ago. Something was missing from the beginning, and the love affair died an ugly death. She kissed me goodbye, and I remembered how she tasted—not from our time together, but childhood. My mother always visited the ill (her whole life), and often the sick wanted to kiss me as a child for the sweetness of a child’s lips. Most of my relatives died of lung cancer, and the prodigal girlfriend tasted of this kind of decay. I knew she wanted me to look after her as she drove away, as I once had, and I did, wishing she hadn’t come. While I’m not religious and seldom spiritual, I did have a dream—the kind you have just before you wake—and she stood at my front door covered in fall leaves. She tried to speak, but no words came out. The dream repeated, reiterated, brutal and meaningless. What did the dream mean? Now and then, I see her at the grocery store, sitting in a lawn chair in my backyard, haunting me. My cruelty to her memory won’t let it die. Our love had been cruel, from its first heartbeat, and died broken on a rack of pure meanness. It wasn’t noble or worth the time, and I think she returned to see me because she was dying and had nothing left but her hatred for me.
(Note: I read this memory every morning over coffee, and I start writing from this black and dead heart, but not about this woman, or our time together, just the emotion I was left with).