Just a short while ago, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing, the novel Ghostland by Duncan Ralston. If you’ve not yet read that review (or if you have and would like to read it again) you can click here to go straight to the review.
I’ve spoken to Duncan on and off over the years now via the wonder of the internet, ever since I first read and reviewed his novel, Woom. Since then I’ve read other titles and Duncan has been kind enough to occasionally send me advance copies of his work for me to review.
This doesn’t mean that I’m biased or will give an inaccurate review just because I got a freebie. It just means that I’ve been lucky enough to get the chance to read things from someone whose work I thoroughly enjoy.
To put it simply. Duncan writes stuff. He writes stuff that I enjoy reading and that I would recommend to others.
I usually add links at the end of articles, but I want to throw a couple in here early for Duncan's amazon pages if you wish to take a look at them, and maybe treat yourself to something.
Right, that’s enough preamble, you’re not here to read about my thoughts, you’re here to find out about Duncan Ralston and what he gets up to, so without any further delays, here’s the Q&A.
Hi Duncan and thanks for taking the time to talk to us. For anyone new to your work, how would you describe what you write and which book would you suggest to a new reader as a starting point?
I write horror and thrillers with a strong focus on character, inspired by Stephen King's early work and fun stuff like Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone. If you're new to my stuff, a good place to start if you like short stories would be Video Nasties, my second horror collection. If you're into longer books, give Ghostland, my latest, a try.
You apparently started writing when you were at school. Was there anything in particular that influenced you to start down that path?
Stephen King's Night Shift and Clive Barker's Books of Blood were my gateway drugs to writing. Reading those really expanded my ideas of what horror could be and got my own creative juices flowing. I rewrote King's "Survivor Type" from memory for a class assignment. Then I started writing my own stuff, just for fun. I was fifteen.
Was there anything that sparked your interest in horror and do you think you’ll ever try dipping into other genres?
I've been interested in horror for as long as I can remember. One of my first horror-related memories was flipping through the channels when I was a kid and coming across the head-in-the-fridge scene from Friday the 13th Part II. Then later, seeing all of those cool VHS covers in the video store with creatures and skulls and bloody body parts on the covers - like Critters, The Gate, Evil Dead 2, Chopping Mall - that got my imagination working overtime, puzzling out what the movies could be about.
I've written several stories outside of the horror genre. Wildfire is a crime thriller and Ebenezer, an adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, is about a hitman coming to terms with his crimes on Black Friday eve.
I usually write whatever draws me in, and generally that happens to be horror. I have been considering writing more transgressive literary stuff, like Palahnuik, Ellis, Welsh, etc. The closest I've come to that is Woom, my extreme psychological horror novella.
Do you have a particular process you like to follow when writing? Is there anything you find helps you get in the right frame of mind for the creative process?
I read for a bit in the morning and then just sit at the computer and write. I usually try to avoid social media as long as possible while I'm writing. I don't listen to music anymore. I find I'm most creative when I can hear my own thoughts. I alternate between writing on the couch and in the office upstairs. There's nothing very special or interesting about how I write anymore. It's very utilitarian.
As well as writing, you work for a TV studio. What’s that like?
I work very behind the scenes in TV. It's an interesting job. I do several different positions so I'm able to get some variety out of the work I do. I was in master control for about 13 years and found it incredibly boring. Now what I do is a bit more technical. Like my writing process, it's nothing glamorous.
The first novel of yours I read was Woom. Where did you get the inspiration for that story?
First thing: I watched a movie. Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Mind-blowing. Completely unlike anything I'd seen before. Dark, transgressive, hard to watch at points (although not so much as Antichrist). Just two people in a room, talking. Again, nothing glamorous. But absolutely riveting.
So, there was that. Then came Black Mirror. The episode "White Christmas," with John Hamm. Again, two people in a room, talking. But just stellar storytelling.
I'm friends with this guy Matt Shaw on Facebook at the time. Great guy, funny, writes a lot of out-there stuff, entertaining as hell. He posts that he's looking to publish some new authors. I've never written anything that could be considered "extreme horror," but I want to challenge myself.
That night I'm watching Room. The one about the woman who was abused. Had a kid from her rapist, who spends his entire childhood in a single room. All the while, even though the movie is great, ideas are popping up.
I started to think about rooms. How the first "room" you're ever in is a womb. And how womb and room sound the same, especially if you speak with rhotacism, or an inability to pronounce Rs.
The next day, I had a few drinks and banged off a quick treatment for how this story might play out. I had no pretensions that Matt would like the concept let alone tell me to write it. What he said was "YES. Let's do this!"
Then the problem became - could I actually write this? And who the hell would want to read it?
Turned out, yes, I could. And a lot of people have read it and enjoyed it.
I should admit, I did get a sick pleasure out of writing it, thinking about how much it was going to gross people out or piss people off.
Your latest novel Ghostland could be described as Jurassic Park with ghosts, where did the idea first spring from?
I was watching a ghost hunting show at my previous job in master control. I worked for Discovery Canada, so it was ghosts and bigfoots and other various "reality"-TV 8 hours a day. I turned to my coworker and said, "I wonder why no one's done Jurassic Park but with ghosts?" He's a big film buff and he thought it was a pretty good idea, so it just kind of went from there.
Is there anything that inspired the character of Rex Garotte?
Garrote is a bit of William Castle, Richard Price, Richard Laymon, Garth Merenghi, and Cyrus Kriticos from Thirteen Ghosts. He's a showman and egotist who cracks corny jokes and puns like someone's horror-obsessed dad. His writing is sometimes a little pretentious but also blunt and bleak and gory.
Are any of the various locations or entities from Ghostland based on real life places or characters?
Not specifically, no. Although I suppose the owner of the Apache Theater has a William Castle-esque quality to him, doesn't he?
You plan to keep revisiting the world you’ve built around Ghostland, is there anything you can tell us about what to expect for the future of the series?
In direct sequels, Ben and Lilian will recruit various people, living and dead, to fight against Rex Garrote and his army of ghosts. Meanwhile, Garrote will be getting stronger, expanding his legion throughout the world.
I plan to write some spinoffs here and there. One thing I'm toying with is Return to Ghostland, where the Ghost Brothers, TV ghost hunters who lended their likenesses to several Augmented Reality exhibits, return to the park for a live TV special several months after the disaster. Another is The Collectors, about the creation of the park from the point of views of Sara Jane Amblin, the creator of the park tech, and Christopher Hedgewood, the money behind the park.
I'm also tinkering with the idea of writing some novels under the Rex Garrote pseudonym. Pastiches of the '80s Horror Boom style.
You mention in your “Word from the author” that you scrapped a few initial drafts for Ghostland. As a writer is do you find it hard to have to drop something that you’ve been working on and will any of those initial ideas make it into any other Ghostland related stories?
It is tough to scrap something you've worked on for months and know that not much if any of it will end up in later drafts or elsewhere. Fortunately there's some stuff in the draft immediately preceding the final that I can salvage some parts from. They were mostly cut for brevity's sake.
You put a lot of work into the “mythology” of Ghostland with things such as the details on Rex Garrote and the Ghostland website. I presume this must have been quite time consuming, but also rewarding too?
It was extremely time-consuming. After the first few early readers sent back their comments, I realized I needed more to make Ghostland feel convincing. That's where I came up with the idea of using quotes from Garrote's novels and screenplays to open each part of the book, along with others from the Ghostland guide and even a pamphlet from a group protesting the park and technology.
Just that one fake quote from the guide got me thinking about doing an actual guide within the book. As if it was a real place. So I have "excerpts" from it in the back of the book, and links from each of the major ghosts encountered within the novel to their entry in the guide. I also commissioned a park map and logo from Mike Tenebrae. They both turned out way better than I could have imagined, and help to make the park feel real, particularly for the website.
You write screenplays as well, will you be writing one for Ghostland?
Not unless someone pays me to, no.
You started Shadow Work Publishing as a way to get your work republished as well as publish titles by other authors. Can you tell us a bit about that?
My first two books were put out by a hybrid company called Booktrope. They were supposed to be the new wave of publishing. Sort of a co-op thing where writers, editors, cover designers and proofreaders worked together and shared in the profits. It was announced a month prior to their collapse that they were closing. I had just gotten my first Bookbub deal and was terrified of losing the reviews I had on Amazon, having to start over from scratch.
So I started Shadow Work Publishing to republish my books and a few others from folks I'd become friends with under the same imprint. I wish I'd reached out to more - there are a few others in particular I wish I could have worked with - but I had a lot on my plate and not a lot of time. I created the website, and Thomas Flowers and Jeffery X Martin and I admined the Facebook page. I had to get a business license and it turned out that I couldn't start an audiobook account due to being Canadian. So there were some hurdles that had to be surmounted but eventually it all worked out.
I've helped publish almost 30 books. I've edited and published several charity anthologies featuring some big names in horror and some first stories from new writers.
You write, have a job, and run a publishing company. What do you do to relax when you have some downtime?
I enjoy hiking, hanging out with friends and family, a drink or two, eating good food, watching movies, playing video games, and of course reading.
What advice would you give to new authors, especially in regards to self-publishing?
Get your stuff proofread. Get a good cover. Don't expect your first book to be successful. Be ready for bad reviews. Accept that not everyone is going to like you. Learn the business. Make friends with fellow writers and readers. Never compromise yourself, know your worth and don't be obsequious. And don't you dare send private messages to strangers asking them to read your book! That's the literary equivalent of a dick pic.
With more and more people self-publishing, how do you manage to get your work noticed amongst such a crowded marketplace?
It's certainly a lot more difficult. I don't want to say that the cream will always rise to the top because let's face it, there's a lot of crap on the top.
It's the reason I did the Kindle Scout competition. It's the reason I did my "viral" campaign with the Rex Garrote Mystery, and used things like Augmented Reality and interactivity with Ghostland.
You really have to find new ways to stand out these days. Be savvy about promoting yourself without being a prick about it. You can't just put your books on Amazon and expect them to find readers on their own.
Conventions are a popular thing. Do you get the opportunity to visit any as either a guest or visitor and can we expect to see you at one in the UK at any time?
I would love to hit a con or two, but as an attendee, not as a guest. I think it will be some time before I hit any of the big ones though - there aren't any good ones in Canada and travel is expensive.
I do plan to some day though.
If there was to be a film made of your life story, who would star as you?
My life story? Damn, that would make for some riveting stuff! I'd love to be played by Samuel L. Jackson but it'd probably end up being someone like Paul Giamatti.
The Ghostland website that Duncan created is something that is worth taking the time to visit, even if you haven't read the book as it contains some really good articles, including interviews with survivors, information on the ghosts and other attractions and a memorial wall of those who lost their lives during the incident.
Here's a link for Duncan's website where you can find out more information on him and his books. it will take you straight to the Ghostland page but, obviously, feel free to navigate the site and see what else you can find. Duncan's such a nice guy, you can even sin up to his mailing list and be eligible for a bunch of freebies, including the The Moving House, which is a short story prequel to Ghostland itself.
Thanks again to Duncan for taking the time to chat with us and we look forward to reading whatever comes next, be it part of Ghostland, or something else entirely.