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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The White Forest: a Q&A with Adam McOmber

Last year I was having lunch with Sally Kim (my beloved Mary Modern editor), and she told me about the first really exciting deal she’d made as the new editorial director of Touchstone at Simon & Schuster. The book was The White Forest, and she said the author told her he wanted to work with her after reading Mary Modern. You can just imagine how AMAZING that made me feel! So I checked out Adam McOmber’s website and ordered his newly published story collection, This New & Poisonous Air.

Of course I enjoy the books I read (I don’t bother finishing them otherwise), but for me Adam’s work reaches that level of enjoyment with emphasis on the J-O-Y. There is this sense of delighted recognition–that ‘yes, yes, you may not have known it but you wrote this book especially for me.’ That’s the feeling I get when I read my favorite writers, like Le Fanu, Philip Pullman or Angela Carter. It’s the sort of fiction I can wish I’d written myself–and in fact, I admitted as much on the back cover.

We haven’t met in person yet, but I can tell you that Adam is really nice and humble and approachable, and I’m thrilled that he agreed to answer my nerdy questions about his books and his writing process. Plus, you’ll have a chance to win a signed copy of The White Forest for your very own. Enjoy!

whiteforest selected

I know it’s the first thing everybody wants to ask, but I love origin stories: what inspired The White Forest? You deal with similar themes and use the same elegant, pleasingly antiquated prose style in This New & Poisonous Air, so would you say the novel grew naturally out of your story collection?

The White Forest was inspired, initially, by an image that came to me one day, seemingly out of nowhere, of a woman in walking across the dark landscape of Hampstead Heath. I could tell that she was troubled, but more than that she was dangerous. I think I had the sense that she might also be a kind of “Victorian Superhero”–one with powers she could not understand. This vision would eventually become the main character of the novel, Jane Silverlake.

The White Forest did grow out of This New & Poisonous Air as well, in a sense. While writing the short stories, I realized that historical settings could act in a manner very similar to fantasy settings. I could invent all sorts of intricate things to populate my versions of Victorian London and Medieval Europe. My versions of the past are fabricated–like Ariston Day’s theater in the novel. I think, on some level, I realize that such fantasies are dangerous–it might be better to think and write about that things that are “real.” But I’m not going to do that.  I’d rather get lost in something strange.

Although I see your point about the antiquated prose style, I can’t really say where that came from. I didn’t have that voice in school or in the years I spent practicing my writing afterward. The voice came about fairly recently, and it seems like it gives the kind of wild stories that I want to tell an air of authenticity. I think, in part, the voice came from finding the right literature to read, pieces that would guide me. Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft guide me, as well as Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter. Rereading Poe as an adult was a revelation; he also became a guide.

 

Both your novel and story collection are deliciously gothic, and you’ve mentioned Poe, Angela Carter, and Isak Dinesen as influences. Were you drawn to scary stories as a child? (I imagine you must’ve had some pretty crazy nightmares either way!)

As a child, I thought scary stories were the only kinds of stories worth reading. I was generally a happy kid, but I put an inordinate amount of stock in the macabre. In part, I think that’s because I felt myself to be an outsider in the small Ohio town where I grew up. The Gothic stories I read were full of interesting outsiders. I related to those characters, and their worlds were more interesting and fulfilling to me than the cornfields and country roads that made up the landscape of my childhood.

The part of your question about fear is very interesting to me. I do remember often being frightened as a child. I don’t know that I really believed in ghosts or anything of that nature (H.P. Lovecraft himself was afraid of visitors called “Night Gaunts” as a child, but thankfully I didn’t interact with any such apparitions). I often had an overwhelming sense, though, that something bad was going to happen–I would become permanently lost or there would be some terrible accident. I think in my writing now, I employ elements that would traditionally be frightening in order to reach a kind of transcendence. That happens in life too. I look toward things that are strange or out of ordinary to find meaning and solace.

 

I take great pleasure in doing research for my novels, so I’d love to hear about how you planned and organized your historical and occult reading. Did you spend much time in London? Read up on Aleister Crowley? Attend any late-night “secret society” meetings in a back-alley pub? Do you seek out places you know will furnish you with interesting or creepy details?

Late night secret societies? I’m afraid of them, Camille! I avoided any sort of hands-on research for that aspect of the book. I did, however, do a great deal of other types of research for The White Forest. I have a dozen composition notebooks with color-coded labels attached to each page that correspond to research for various settings, characters and events in the novel. I read texts on nineteenth-century mysticism as well as works of comparative mythology (James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is a favorite of mine, a book that I return to again and again, no matter what I’m writing). I also read many collections of Victorian ghost stories as I was writing. The ghost stories helped me to capture my main character’s haunted and, hopefully, haunting voice.

I have spent time in London, yes, and certainly those experiences helped to flesh out the world of The White Forest, but most of my settings come from my own imagination. They may bear the names of actual places, but beware of using them as road maps. I’m partial to looking at art for inspiration as well, especially work by the Pre-Raphaelites and Gustave Dore. All of my settings tend to be mythic or symbolic in some way, so I usually “construct” them rather than using actual locations.

 

What does a typical work day look like? Do you find it challenging to balance writing and teaching?

Sometimes finding a balance is challenging, yes. I try to set aside at least two or three hours to write every day. If I don’t teach on a given day, I’ll write longer. I’ve been working on a new manuscript recently, and there are days when I will write eight to ten hours. This can be exhausting, but I think it causes the barrier between writer and story to become very thin. When I write for an extended amount of time, I feel myself getting closer and closer to the characters. I generally start my writing day by generating new material and then end with the revising of something.

 

Do you have any particular writerly rituals or superstitions?

I don’t really know that I have too many writerly rituals. I write all the time and everywhere. I’ve even been known to pause while walking down the street, pull a notebook out of my bag, and start writing while standing on the sidewalk if an idea takes me. When beginning a novel or short story, I generally write longhand in a composition notebook (the kind with the black and white marble cover). I start collecting images and bits of voice. When the story begins to take shape, that’s when I move to my computer and start typing. I guess one other ritual would be reading aloud. Every sentence that I write gets read out loud many times. I really care about the music of the language, so I think it’s important to hear it spoken.

 

Give us your desert-island reading list!

1. The Golden Bough, James George Frazer
2. London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd
3. The Stand, Stephen King
4. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore
5. The Omnibus of Crime, ed. Dorothy L. Sayers

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Thanks, Adam!

To enter to win an autographed copy of The White Forest, leave a comment with the name of a novel or short story that scared the bejeezus out of you. (Believe me, once you read the climax scene you’ll see why I’m asking.) Then read the first chapter on The Nervous Breakdown, visit Adam on the web here, and follow him on Twitter at @adammcomber! (Oh, and you’ll get extra entries if you RT or share on Twitter or Facebook. Tag me, or just mention it in your comment.)

You can also check out the official Simon & Schuster book page, which has a video clip of Adam talking about the book.

Contest closes 5pm ET Friday, September 14th!

* * *
EDIT: I used the random number generator, and Laura Kay wins! Thanks to everyone who took the time to tell me about a book or story that frightened them.

8 Comments to The White Forest: a Q&A with Adam McOmber

  1. https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlSEvXfEPw_cIvA3lm2Y1QvHC4DrFIo8GU's Gravatar https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlSEvXfEPw_cIvA3lm2Y1QvHC4DrFIo8GU
    September 11, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Ok, I read a book YEARS ago that scared me to! I don’t remember the name, but I remember it was suppose to be a real account of alien abductions written by a novelist. I got maybe half way through it and freaked out! Like stayed up all night and got rid of the book the next day! Even to this day when my husband puts on anything to do with aliens I refuse to watch 😀
    Great giveaway and I’m super excited about reading The White Forest!
    Laura Kay
    anovelreview(@)yahoo(.)com

  2. https://me.yahoo.com/a/dx.B_gNgpfMj3BC4aaknTantnZ0XymTn#d757b's Gravatar https://me.yahoo.com/a/dx.B_gNgpfMj3BC4aaknTantnZ0XymTn#d757b
    September 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    wow. I don’t like to be scared, but if I know it’s a novel, I’ll probably recover — albeit after a few nightmares! Gonna have to get this book… Thanks, Camille!
    Peg Ginsberg

  3. ait.mzm's Gravatar ait.mzm
    September 12, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I love author’s interviews, and this one was great, Camille. I am looking forward to reading The White Forest. Plus, what a compliment that must have been to hear that he wanted to work with your editor because of your book.
    The book that scared the bejeezus out of me, but strangely attracted me to the horror genre was The Amityville Horror. I still imagine the scene where the red eyes appear at the darkened window when ever I look up at a house. Even mine!

  4. crazyliberalkate's Gravatar crazyliberalkate
    September 12, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    First, I just want to say that you two need to meet–stopping in the street to write in your notebook is so Camille!
    The Vanishing Hotel Room is a short story that I read in a collection many years ago and it really creeped me out. It’s the one where a mother and daughter are traveling, the daughter goes out and when she comes back her mother is gone, the hotel has changed, and no one knows who she is. Her mother contracted the plague and the hotel wanted to erase all evidence of it.

  5. theyfell's Gravatar theyfell
    September 14, 2012 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I hope no one stops to take notes while crossing the street!
    Alright, the first story that ever scared me was was “Dread” from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, which I read in fifth grade. Lunatics, faux-clowns, axes…it cemented my love of horror. The story would later be turned into a pretty terrible movie, but my original impression of the story has always stuck with me.

  6. Louise's Gravatar Louise
    September 14, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    The Tailypo! It still scares me!
    A couple of years ago, a customer came into the bookshop where I worked and asked about a children’s book where a hermit is stalked by a mysterious creature…
    …the hairs on the back of my neck went up.
    Then she said, “My daughter said the creature wanted its tail back!” …
    …you know that feeling when a fear goes wobbling down your spine? The Heebie Jeebies. I had to get someone else to order the book for her, I couldn’t even look at the (actually, quite benign) cover!
    I love how stories like that stay with us and continue to haunt, long after we’ve grown up!

  7. https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlSEvXfEPw_cIvA3lm2Y1QvHC4DrFIo8GU's Gravatar https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlSEvXfEPw_cIvA3lm2Y1QvHC4DrFIo8GU
    September 14, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I’m going to have to look for The Vanishing Hotel Room! Sounds really good!

  8. seanan.mcdonnell's Gravatar seanan.mcdonnell
    September 15, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Death, Duck and the Tulip. It made me shiver cry.

Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.