Michael Schutz-Ryan was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. A lifelong diet of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King whet his appetite for the macabre. A lover of all things horror, he plumbs the depths of Netflix in search of scary movies, and then podcasts and blogs about them on Darkness Dwells (http://www.darknessdwells.com) His debut novel, Blood Vengeance, was recently published by Permuted Press. His short fiction has been featured in the anthologies Ugly Babies, Cranial Leakage: Tales from the Grinning Skull, Beyond the Nightlight, and in the magazines Infernal Ink, Expanded Horizons, and SQ Mag. He lives in northern California with his husband and their three furry cat-children. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.
Christina Rivers: Michael, first off, thank you for sitting down with me to talk about your book, “Blood Vengeance”. I really enjoyed reading your debut novel.
Michael Schutz-Ryan: Thanks for having me, Christina. I’m thrilled that you liked it!
Christina: Can you tell readers what inspired this story and/or the premise behind it?
Michael: “Blood Vengeance” was very much inspired by my own move to San Francisco. There’s a lot of me in Brennan Cooper, the protagonist. I wanted to write about the loneliness and confusion I felt at the time. Also, I had discovered that San Francisco has a dark and dirty side, far away from the touristy—and wealthy—areas. That all set the stage for this haunted apartment idea growing inside my head.
Christina: Was there something about the story that was a really frightening idea that sparked a horror thriller?
Michael: I watch all the serial killer thrillers, everything from Dexter to Criminal Minds (I grew up in Wisconsin, and the Midwest produces more than its fair share of gruesome killers). I thought about how horrible it would be if a serial killer’s spirit survived his death and continued torturing his victims. Then I wondered if the ghosts of those victims would be able to remain innocent under conditions of eternal torment. That was my starting point.
Christina: You say you are influenced by King and Koontz. What about their work influenced you to want to dive into the genre of horror/thrillers?
Michael: Stephen King’s character development is a beautiful thing to behold. He writes engaging and succinct backstories for even his secondary characters. I love that. The living, breathing people he creates captivate me. It’s so inspiring. I want to write characters like that.
As for Dean Koontz, his early works are a marvel at blending the typical with the unexpected. The natural and the supernatural. I love how all those books sucked me into believing that ghosts or aliens were the culprits, but inevitably the real problem was man-made. Peter Straub sort of does that, too, but backwards—creates a normal, ordinary world, then breaks it apart so the dark, scary things burst through. I like to create worlds that start out as everyday life, then shatter, allowing evil to creep in.
Christina: You use main characters that are teens. Was there a specific reasoning behind using that age group?
Michael: That’s an interesting question. I gave no forethought about their ages, but it proved to be a big stumbling block in marketing this book. I was told several times that their ages and concerns made “Blood Vengeance” a young adult novel. But it’s really not. I thought to myself: Carrie is about a high school girl, bullies, and prom, but it’s not a young adult book. Not that I have anything against YA, but my intention was for the themes, imagery, and larger scope to attract adult audiences. High school is a time and place we all remember. I believed that my readers would think back to their own experiences—either with a sense of nostalgia or with dread—and relate to my characters.
Christina: Great point. I even thought about King’s short story that later became the basis for the movie, “Stand by Me”. It was about kids going to find a dead body as much as it was about the interpersonal relationships of youth. I highly doubt King saw the story as YA fiction.
Without spoiling anything – who do you think Brennan and Marc really are at their core as characters? What was the goal in developing them as the main protagonists in the story and how they relate to each other?
Michael: Brennan stands on the brink of manhood. This is certainly a coming-of-age story, and he’s right at that crisis point where his decisions will determine what kind of person he’ll be. Marc has already passed that point. And he made a poor decision. So Marc is an example—a warning—of what Brennan will become if he chooses the wrong path. I saw the haunting as a way to unite them, like yin and yang together to quell the eponymous vengeance.
Christina: You use San Francisco as the setting. It sounds very dark in some aspects. Did you base locations on personal ‘haunts’ in your life? How did you familiarize yourself with those areas?
Michael: When I moved to San Francisco in 2004, I arrived with very little money. I lived with a friend in the Tenderloin for the first two and a half years. Most of the settings in “Blood Vengeance” reflect real places. All fictionalized, of course, and names have been changed to protect the innocent! But The Montague apartment building is based on the actual residential hotel I lived in. As for familiarizing myself with the area, San Francisco is quite small geographically. I walked everywhere! And their MUNI is the best public transportation system I have ever seen.
Christina: The residential hotel setting – why room 213? Why so quiet of neighbors? Tell us about how you visualized the location.
Michael: I’m so glad you asked this question! 213 was Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment number. I couldn’t think of a creepier allusion. Also, The Montague is named after Dr. Montague of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”, the best (and most literary) horror novel I’ve ever read. So I based my interiors on that old residential hotel I lived in (and others I visited). I made it a bit grander, and the rooms bigger, to accommodate the characters and their lives and struggles.
As for the quiet neighbors, one of my favorite themes—one I return to again and again in my writing—is that of isolation. The never-seen neighbors are a reflection of that. I like the idea that these unknown people are suffering through The Montague’s haunting in their own ways. But I didn’t want to expand on that, because I thought Brennan (and Marc) should feel alone with their torments in that building, as if they were the only ones affected. Being alone and suffering is a terrible feeling. I wanted to evoke a sense of that.
Christina: The group of friends – is there a parallel there between them that resembles a group of friends you had in your life? What made you choose the diversity of the group and their dynamics?
Michael: Brennan’s friends are a sort of dream team for him. They each have a trait he wishes for himself. They’re not based on any of my friends, past or present. But their diversity came naturally. So many different kinds of people live in San Francisco, and I needed to capture that. As for their personalities, they sort of developed organically. Over the course of a few drafts, they came into their own more and more.
Christina: Do you see Brennan showing up in any more of your stories? Or his friends?
Michael: I don’t foresee an outright sequel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brennan or one of his friends pops up a minor character somewhere down the line. That’s one thing I love about Stephen King’s novels, when characters from his other books are mentioned. Sometimes even King himself! That creates a reality, like the Marvel Universe, where all the characters you know actually live in the same plane of existence.
Christina: As for the horrors in the story – did you draw from a real crime case or is that just a dark addition you felt made the story similar to real-life horrors?
Michael: The San Francisco Ripper and his crimes are my own invention. But those types of heinous acts happen all too often. I surrounded the Ripper and his murders with as much reality as I could—the setting, the atmosphere, all the different types of people one sees while walking through the city (the Tenderloin in particular). I hoped to create a world so real that one felt certain the Ripper must be real, too. A dark part of history no one knows much about.
Christina: Why UC Berkeley?
Michael: For much of the time, San Francisco lays under the fog. Everything seems grey. That’s a motif I used in “Blood Vengeance”. It’s also a consistent ten degrees cooler than inland cities because of the Bay. But if you do what Brennan and Tara do—ride the BART to Berkeley—you come up out of the station into this bright, beautiful sunlight. The air is warm. It’s a perfect juxtaposition. I wanted that section to represent hope. While they’re in Berkeley, they are on a serious mission, and the dark force does follow them there. But they are closer to a resolution by travelling there. And it is, of course, where Brennan wants to be in his future.
Christina: You wrote Brennan in a heterosexual relationship. Would you ever consider homosexual characters in a story or do you think the general public isn’t open to that right now as a contemporary horror?
Michael: Brennan started out as gay! I had every intention of writing a gay main character. Originally, he was in love with his high school tormentor, Cary. But then Tara showed up. It sounds strange, but they fell in love without my consent! That really happens, characters take on their own traits and personalities. At that point, it seemed natural, so I rewrote the beginning. I did leave in Brennan’s phantom encounter with Cary in 213, though. I liked how that played out regardless. If this story were to continue into a second book—Brennan at college—I suspect that he would begin the process of coming out. Maybe Tara was a phase.
My second book features a straight married couple, with a gay ancillary character, but book three will finally have a gay protagonist. Part of me does believe that as a gay writer, I owe it to the public, myself, and my fans to present positive gay characters. And I think the general public is accepting of homosexual characters now more than ever. I dare say that horror fans especially. I think that speculative fiction draws a liberal fan base.
Christina: What plans do you have for a next book? Will you stick with the same genre?
Michael: My next book, “Edging”, is also horror. The macabre is my passion. I can definitely see writing more dramatic books, but I’m sure they will all have dark themes.
Christina: How do you see yourself as an author? What sets you apart? Or what do you hope sets you apart?
Michael: I’d like to be known for creating nightmares out of the real world. When someone wants to read about an ordinary person facing extraordinary perils, I want them to think of me. Of course, characters are essential, too. I would love to be known for vibrant, realistic people populating my books.
Christina: How do you think up stories? What is your process? Do you stick with a keyboard or sometimes use a pen and paper?
Michael: My process is evolving. Once upon a time, I hated the thought of outlining future projects. Now I believe that outlines are invaluable. Sitting down to write for the day becomes a pleasure rather than a chore when I know exactly what needs to be done in the next chapter.
As for keyboard versus pen and paper—I wrote “Blood Vengeance” by hand, filling five composition notebooks over the course of nine months. After that, I couldn’t bear the thought of transcribing all those words into the computer! I took a year or so, filling another two notebooks with ideas and changes. I finally had nothing left to do but just type the story into the word processor. I felt like Sisyphus eternally rolling that boulder up the hill. I’ll never do that again. I outline and jot down ideas in notebooks, but any actual writing goes right on the laptop!
Christina: Do you have a special location you like to write from that creates the atmosphere for your stories?
Michael: “Blood Vengeance” took a long time from first word of the first draft to the final edit before publication. I think I moved four times during that process, so it was written at many tables in many different cities! My second book, “Edging”, was written entirely in my recliner in the living room! Now, finally, I have a little office space where I can sit in a proper chair, at a desk, notebooks at my side. We’ll see how that works out.