Nate Southard has been publishing comics, short stories and novels for nearly a decade. His latest book, Lights Out, brings the vampire genre a much-needed shot of nastiness by setting the story inside a maximum security prison filled with a colorful – and violent – cast of characters. Nate was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new book, and much more, for October Country.
OC: First of all, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you ended up writing books and stories for a living.
NS: Ah, the awkward, “getting to know you” phase. Well, I’m a guy from Indiana who moved to Texas, and I’m a sucker for a scary story. I’ve written a few novels, including Red Sky and Scavengers, and a few novellas, including Just Like Hell and This Little Light of Mine. It looks like folks are digging them, so I guess I’m doing something right. I just write the kind of stories I like to read.
Lights Out, your latest novel, sounds like a premise primed for lots of action – vampires invading a prison, forcing the various characters inside to work together to survive. What’s the root of the idea, and how much fun did you have writing it?
Lights Out started as an idea called Stay Down, which was inspired by the best knuckle tattoos I’ve ever seen. I wanted to tell a monster story where the heroes weren’t just rough, but were downright nasty. After kicking around a few possible settings, I settled into the idea of placing it in a maximum security prison. By setting it there, I could explore the different levels of human nastiness while creating a good thriller. And I got to play with the idea that the worst person out there is still “human” to some degree. I guess it’s either a very optimistic novel or a very naive novel because of that. There are more than a few spots of fun violence, either way.
At the heart of it, Lights Out was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It’s a combination of how I wrote the novel and the characters that came out of it. With Lights Out, I settled into a groove where I was knocking out about 3000 words a day. I’d come home, put Faith No More’s Angel Dust on the stereo, and just get lost in the writing. There are a few spots where I let myself play a little, like a couple chapters that are only dialogue. And the characters are some of the most fun I’ve ever created. There’s a fun mixture of cold-hearted bastards, well-meaning failures, bullies, cowards, and at least one complete psychopath. Putting all these guys under one roof was just a fun swirl of chaos.
You also mention another book you’re working on, The Slab City Event. Understanding that it’s still a work-in-progress, what can you tell us about it?
Slab City is a new zombie novel that Creeping Hemlock is publishing through their Print Is Dead imprint. It’s still so far off that I can’t say anything, but I will say I’m having an absolute blast writing it. I guess I can also say the entire story takes place over the span of maybe ten-to-fifteen minutes.
You were heavily involved in putting on last year’s World Horror Con. What was that experience like, and what did you take away from it personally and professionally?
It was one of the most rewarding and exhausting experiences of my life. I’m not kidding when I say World Horror made a year of my life just disappear. Even now, we’re putting the last few pieces of the convention to bed. There are days when I feel like I’m still recovering.
Personally, it was a devastating and amazing weekend. A lot of terrible stuff happened, and a lot of great people did some really wonderful things to help me get through it. I know there are a ton of adjectives in that sentence, but I mean every last one of them. The committee was a joy to work with, and our guests of honor were incredible. And then there’s my co-chair, Lee Thomas. Without him, the convention would have failed on every level. He really took my idea of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to fly to a con?” and made it a working reality.
Professionally, I’m very proud of what we did. Rhodi Hawk roped in a ton of quality editors and agents to take pitches, easily triple the most I’d ever seen at a genre convention. Nick Mamatas put together a programming slate that was fun and informational. Everybody else on the committee did a fabulous job, and I’m so thrilled that we could host a convention that might have helped some writers with their careers and provided a fun weekend for fans.
Your bibliography is a mix of short stories and novels – do you have a preference between the two? When you get ideas, do you know “this is a short story” or “this is a novel,” or does it only reveal itself as you work?
I love ‘em both. For the last couple of years, I’ve been concentrating on novels and novellas, but it’s not like I don’t get short story ideas. I’m not sure why, but most of the recent good ideas have been for longer pieces. It’s a little weird, because I do know when the ideas come if they’ll be short or long pieces, but I can’t really pinpoint how I know. They just feel different on some base level.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you have certain times or places that you like to write, or is it just grabbing time when you can?
I’m a little crazy. I wake up around 4:30 in the morning and write for ninety minutes before I go to work. On good days, I can knock out between 1000 and 1500 words. On the days when I don’t reach that mark, I’ll try to finish up during my lunch break or after work. The best writing is always in the morning, though. My mind’s good and blank, then. I don’t have any stress in there. I used to write as soon as I got home from work. With the exception of Lights Out, that almost always turned into a slog.
You’ve reached a certain level of success – what’s the next step, and what do you think it will take to get there?
I want to say the next step is to finally land that agent and sell a book to one of the big New York publishers, but it’s not like I have any control of that past putting together the best pitch I can. That’s always the way I’ve pictured the career going though, and that’s what I’m working toward now. That said, I know other authors, like Robert Swartwood, who have been very successful publishing their own work for print and ebook. The entire industry looks to be in flux now, and I’m not so sure what the right next step might be. I do know I want to get more of my backlist onto ebook and available in affordable print editions. Thunderstorm’s doing a great job of trying to bridge that collector/reader gap with Lights Out, which is a signed and limited hardback for only $35. It’s a little more expensive than you’d see on a bookstore shelf, but not outrageously more.
What else does 2012 have in store that readers should be watching for?
Right now, Thunderstorm Books is selling the limited edition of Lights Out. My next novel is Down, a weird monster story involving rock stars, plane crashes, drug addiction, cannibalism, and some really nasty sinkholes. I just turned in that one, and it should be out this spring from Sinister Grin Press. Thanks to the folks at Deadite Press, I now have a message board at slaughterhouseforum.com, and they’ll be releasing a paperback edition of Red Sky later this year. There’s no firm date for The Slab City Event, but it should be out within a year or so. Maybe. I think.
After that, who knows? I’ve got a crime novel I’m kicking around and the early stages of a new horror novel. We’ll just have to see how everything unfolds.