How I Write: Andrew Pyper
Latest Book: The Demonologist
Where did you grow up?
Stratford, Ontario, a smallish town a couple hours west of Toronto, home of the Stratford Festival (a repertory theater specializing in Shakespeare) and the Ontario Pork Congress. In many ways, the Pork Congress is a more natural fit: rural, no nonsense. A busy, touristy place in the summers, but transformed by snowbelt isolation in the winters (the roads in and out of town are frequently hazardous, or closed outright). The buildings are Victorian red-brick, the streetlights dim, its secrets well-kept. Looking back, it’s a perfect place for the development of a gothic imagination.
Where and what did you study?
I was the only kid from my high school vintage to attend university outside of the province, a claim not meant to show my worldliness (I had none of that), but merely my desire for something different from what I had known up to that point. At McGill, in Montreal, I studied English Literature. As graduation loomed, I figured I’d stay at it, get a Ph.D., and remain a campus rat forever. But after my Master’s degree, I started to feel the walls closing in, the specialization and fussiness required of a life in the academy. The impatient generalist in me broke out in hives. But there was still a theoretical career to pursue, a life to be prepared for. So I went to law school, which I, more or less, hated. I finished the degree and was called to the Bar. Then, I immediately started work on what would become my first novel, Lost Girls. There was no plan, no sense that I would “be” a writer. It was just a reward after doing something I didn’t like for the prior four years.
Where do you live and why?
Toronto was where I went to law school, and perhaps for that reason, my first several years here were hesitant, critical. I guess I assumed I’d go somewhere else. But the truth is, I’m not really a “place-ist” at heart. You know those people who are constantly in search of a home for their soul, the matching of personal taste to the aesthetics of their environment? That’s not me. Not to say I’m blind to my surroundings, just that I’m adaptable – I can make a workable nest anywhere, I think. And then I started to actually like this place, to love it, stand up for it. My two young children were born here, the elder going to school here. That’s what’s really decided the matter. Toronto is home.
What’s the literary scene like in Toronto?
Very active. On the larger, institutional side, there’s the Harbourfront Festival, a reading series throughout the year, capped by a big international festival in the autumn, which brings in the greatest writers from around the world. And then, on the street-level, there’s a barroom reading or launch or event of some kind happening every night (if drinking with other writers is your thing). All of the major Canadian publishers, newspapers and stuff are here. Toronto is the “inside” (for better or worse).
Describe your morning routine.
Make breakfast for kids. Forget to make breakfast for self. Remember coffee. Up to third floor office. Write until noon (after which time brain starts to get crispy).
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I’m told my nose twitches when I’m lying.
Several of your books have been optioned for film. Tell me a bit about this process and how the author is involved. For Lost Girls, I believe that you will be screenwriting, but that’s a bit unusual, isn’t it?
Typically, it’s a story of how the author isn’t involved. That’s probably a good thing, in most cases. A movie option is essentially a fee paid by the producers to make the author go away. Sometimes, I fondly think of it as “f*** off money.” And it’s a blessing, because it allows you to go back to what you should be working on – your next book – and not waiting for the phone to ring, so you can jump on a conference call about the fourteenth draft of the adaptation, and burn away the hours of an otherwise perfectly good day.
In the case of Lost Girls, I became more involved after it ran out of time at the Hollywood studio that optioned it. I’d read a number of draft adaptations of the novel over the preceding years, and came away thinking “I could do that – it’s not brain surgery.” Little did I know it is brain surgery.
Anyway, I partnered with a producer who had a passion for the material, and wrote the screenplay myself. Not for “involvement’s” sake, necessarily, but as an experiment in craft, to see if I could do it. And it turns out I could. That is, after learning the art of not crying out “Are you kidding me?” in response to every dumbass note.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I’m a mapper. I’ve come to see the pre-writing phase of the novel as more and more important – not to mention more and more exciting. Pitching myself an idea, marrying it to other orphan ideas. Devising the moves and twists of the plot. From the outside, it’s a period that looks a lot like doing nothing (“Baby, are you watching The View?”), but it’s actually where the heavy lifting gets done.
Some author-to-author advice: what has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
We’re living in the Age of the Pitch. The Hook. The high-concept grab. And it’s a good time to be alive. There are any number of ways to open a novel, and it doesn’t have to be a blowout first page to get the job done. What’s required is perhaps as elusive and deceptively simple a thing as establishing a compelling voice, or hinting at a mystery, or telling a joke. But lengthy throat-clearing just isn’t allowed.
The Demonologist is a genuinely scary read. Is it more difficult for a book to be scary, in this age of super-saturation with images and quick-cut film editing? I always feel that it’s easy to be scary in films—just move slowly and quietly, and then have something jump out at you with screechy violins. But what makes for scary reading?
I don’t call upon the gory in The Demonologist, or any of my novels, really. And instances of explicit violence are generally rare and brief. It’s just a constraint I’ve put on myself: to create suspense and fear in the reader without pushing them into pools of blood. It’s a horror of the mind, more than a horror of the body that I’m after.
The best way to achieve this, I think, isn’t so much through creating a more hideous monster/ghost/ghoul, but through a more specific character who encounters a given monster/ghost/ghoul. It’s how the character experiences the horror that makes us scared, and the better we know that character, the more real the supernatural will be for us.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
My office is a small, under-insulated room on the third floor of our home. Uncomfortably cold in the winter, uncomfortably hot in the summer. But a little discomfort is a good thing for writing, I think (or perhaps this is a particularly Presbyterian notion). Keeps you thinking about the visceral, the real world and its real irritations.
From my window, in the background, I can see the bank towers of downtown in the distance. In the foreground, the fat squirrels staring in at me, pissed off that I keep trying to block the hole they use to make a nest under the eaves.
Describe your evening routine.
Glass of wine while making dinner. Other random stuff after the wine. But really the evening is built around the glass of wine.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Reading Martin Amis.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
What is something you always carry with you?
These days, it’s the friendship bracelets my daughter makes for me, and I wear around my wrist until, over the course of months, they fray and fall off. Then she makes me another one.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
I don’t really do zombies.
What is your favorite snack?
Allowed: cheddar bunnies. Not allowed: Miss Vickie’s black pepper potato chips.
What phrase do you over-use?
In conversation, it may be “at the end of the day,” and I hate myself for it.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I had been writing short stories and publishing them in literary journals through my 20s, only thinking of collecting them in book form in the most day-dreamy way. And then I get a call out of nowhere from John Metcalf, then editor of a small press, saying he’d like to publish a collection of my stories (what went on to be Kiss Me). I hadn’t submitted anything to him – he’d been pointed my way by Steven Heighton, writer and then-editor of one of the journals that had published me. It was all done, in the kindest way, behind my back.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
No one moment, I don’t think. But each year I submit my tax return and think “This income, as unreliable as it is, was exclusively generated out of the proceeds from stuff I made up,” and I’m filled with wonder and pride.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
When I’m in the middle of a first draft, it’s all about the word count. I don’t let myself unlock the chains to the desk until I’ve hit a certain number (having learned that merely spending time at the desk guarantees nothing). The word count itself varies over the course of the project, starting out smaller at the beginning, and increasing as I grow more confident in the novel’s world.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I once gave a reading in a mall, after hours. Not in a store in a mall, but the vast mezzanine of the mall itself, near the dribbling, incontinent fountain. It was sort of interesting and bit spooky, in a Dawn of the Dead sort of way, until we realized… Nobody can stop the muzak! Apparently they play that stuff over the PA 24/7, and we couldn’t track down whatever manager or god who might make it stop. So I gave my reading through an echoing soundtrack of a symphonic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Don’t submit anything until you have read it and re-read it, then read it aloud to yourself a few times, and asked harshly critical friends and/or family to read it, then sat on it awhile and worked on it some more. Resist the urge to hit SEND.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“Gentleman. Wit. Craftsman. Sexy as Hell.”
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I’m very, very goofy.
What is your next project?
A new novel about…SHUT UP! IT’S TOO EARLY TO “ABOUT” IT!
This interview is an expansion of Noah Charney’s weekly “How I Write” series on The Daily Beast, which comes out every Wednesday.
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