Interview: May 28, 2010
John Manning follows up last year’s acclaimed thriller, ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS, with THE KILLING ROOM --- a ghost story centering on a vengeful spirit that is slowly killing off members of an elite family. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Manning discusses the literary and pop influences that inspired the story’s plot, and explains the thought process behind creating his archetypal main characters. He also shares an interesting family secret, weighs in on the existence of ghosts, and names some of his favorite horror movies released over the past 30 years.
Bookreporter.com: THE KILLING ROOM, your latest novel, is a straight-ahead, unapologetic ghost story concerning an extremely angry and homicidal ghost. The ghost story is an oft-visited staple of genre fiction, and coming up with a new twist to an old tale, if you will, must have been quite a challenge. What got you started on the book, and what kept you going?
John Manning: The characters. It was tremendous fun to create an entire family, going back several generations, and developing the relationships between all of them. I began to really like the people I was creating, even the nasty ones, and writing about them was my way of finding out more about them. I didn't quite know how it would end, who would live, and who would die. So every day sitting down to write was a new adventure in these characters' lives.
BRC: The storyline concerns a decades-long curse upon the Youngs, a wealthy family who every 10 years must participate in a lottery where the “winner,” so to speak, has to spend the night in a room from which no one, except one notable exception, has ever left alive. Howard Young, the patriarch of the family, recruits a private investigator to uncover the source of the curse in the hope of removing it forever. You have previously said that you intended the novel to be a tribute, in a way, to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. While THE KILLING ROOM does share some elements with that novel, it is certainly an original work in its own right. For readers who are not familiar with “The Lottery”, can you tell them about it? And were you influenced by any other books during the writing process?
JM: Shirley Jackson's story “The Lottery” scared the heck out of me as a kid. And it's really not traditional horror at all, but there is a terrible mounting suspense to it. I'm intrigued by the complexities of family relationships, so instead of a town as Jackson describes, I brought the lottery to a single family. Of course I have to acknowledge a debt to the wonderful 1960s television show “Dark Shadows,” which also had a lottery held among the Collins family. But that was also part of a "parallel time" storyline, and had many other strange twists. I decided I wanted this story to be fairly simple: the lottery and the secret behind it.
BRC: One of the many elements of THE KILLING ROOM that I enjoyed was the characterizations found in the book, particularly of the Young family. Anyone reading it could find at least one member (if not more) of that family who resembles someone in their own. Are any members of the Young family based upon your own relatives? And would they recognize themselves?
JM: Not my own family particularly, but I know people like all of them. Writing a book like this enables you to create characters who fit archetypes --- that makes for good storytelling. There's the good father, the wayward son, the egotist, the villain, the airhead daughter... Throw those personalities together and the possibilities are endless for drama.
BRC: On a related note, the book is full of unique and memorable characters (for me, the first among this cast of equals would have to be Diana, whose clairvoyant abilities are only the tip of her interesting qualities). She seems like too interesting a character to limit to a guest appearance in one novel. Will you be bringing her back for any future works?
JM: Yes, indeed, I think there is considerable more to explore with the character of Diana. She was one of my favorites as well.
BRC: I have described THE KILLING ROOM to friends as “like reading a roller coaster”: The first half is full of fear and foreboding, while the second half drops you into unadulterated terror. Did you outline the book before you began writing it, or did the story develop as the characters began talking to you? And if you did outline the story initially, how closely did you stick to the outline during the course of your writing?
JM: It was a very rough outline. I knew that somehow the curse needed to be revealed, but just who would find out the story behind it, and how that would be done, was only revealed to me each day when I sat down to write. As I got close to the end, I did map the story out more fully, just so I would be sure to tie up any loose ends. But most of the writing was just as you say: I let the characters speak to me and reveal their own fates.
BRC: The last fourth of the novel was some of the most frightening material that I’ve read recently. No one can accuse you of not putting a big finish into your books. How long did you work on that in proportion to the rest of the novel? And were you looking for an over-the-top conclusion when you first conceived the book?
JM: The end of the book wrote itself. The first part --- the exposition --- took the longest. By the time the family has all assembled at the house, I was just flying through the story. It took off like wildfire. This is one of the great joys for a writer --- to be so carried along in the narrative and watching in a kind of astonishment as all the pieces slide into place. By then I knew how it would end, and it was just a matter of letting the characters find their own way of getting there.
BRC: To me, THE KILLING ROOM is a very different novel from ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS, your first John Manning book. Although they share a couple of plot elements --- connected homicides over a number of years, and the involvement of the supernatural --- THE KILLING ROOM is one in which supernatural entities really get to drive the Lexus, so to speak. When did you first acquire an interest in things that go bump in the night? And why do you think that such an interest has continued to the present day?
JM: Once again, it goes back to “Dark Shadows,” which was the single greatest influence on my imagination. Then came the 1970s horror movies like Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Burnt Offerings and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud... I could go on and on. I love a good scary movie --- preferably with the emphasis on suspense and not on gore. Though, I admit, there is a bit of blood spilled in this book.
BRC: I know that you keep an open mind concerning the existence of spirits. With that consideration, do you believe in the existence of ghosts? If so, what do you believe that they are?
JM: I am fairly certain that the supernatural, as we'd describe it, exists. But what was supernatural in previous centuries --- mysterious deaths, for example --- is science today, as we learn about the inner workings of the body and disease. And as science progresses, I believe that we'll be able to explain psychic phenomena --- not disprove it, or dismiss it, but to understand that energy does not need to exist within a physical body to be real.
BRC: While ghosts form the core of THE KILLING ROOM, it is a set of family secrets that propel the story. Every family has secrets: some important, some silly, some embarrassing. What is the most fascinating family secret --- yours or someone else’s --- that has been disclosed to you?
JM: I love the story that my great-great grandfather had to flee Ireland because he was a horse thief and they were going to hang him. That story had been whispered down the generations. I wouldn't call it a secret anymore, because I love sharing it. It makes for rather colorful family history.
BRC: You have stated previously that it has been your practice to write only in the morning. Since THE KILLING ROOM is a bit of a different book for you, did you do anything different with respect to your schedule while you were writing it?
JM: Always mornings. It's the only time my writing muscles work. Sometimes I can stretch to 1 or 2 in the afternoon, but that's not very often.
BRC: On a somewhat related note, what is your favorite ghost story --- short story or novel --- of all time? And you can include THE KILLING ROOM!
JM: Hands down, THE TURN OF THE SCREW.
BRC: You have talked before about your fondness for horror movies from the 1970s. Do you have a favorite? And can you name the horror novel you would most like to see adapted for film?
JM: Picking a favorite would be like a parent picking among his or her children. The Exorcist is still probably the scariest movie I've ever seen. I also like Sisters, and Suspiria, and the original Wicker Man, and the ones I mentioned earlier like Let's Scare Jessica to Death. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. The Other was another favorite, but that's the ’60s. As far as what I'd like to see made into a movie, I know it’s not horror, but I've long awaited an adaptation of Stephen King's Dark Tower series.
BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
JM: I'm reading King's UR right now. Not his best, but fascinating. A haunted Kindle. Talk about bringing horror to the modern age!
BRC: You have previously stated that “John Manning” is a pseudonym and that you are actively writing under other names. What do you have planned next for Manning? Are you going to continue writing in a supernatural vein?
JM: I love writing ghost stories. I'd like to try a vampire tale sometime, but the vogue for vamps may have peaked. It'll be back, though. These things are cyclical.
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