Run Downhill is an indy country ensemble with a sound that blends classic country with modern indy rock, folk, and world music. Based out of LA, the band features Adam Levy, Nate LaPointe, Ken Lasaine, Tom Moose, and T.J. Troy. Run Downhill positions their work outside of a traditional music context, combining it with the world of comic art and graphic novels in the form of “Song Comics”. This month, we sit down with T.J. Troy, to discuss the band, the Song Comic form, and a few other projects.
IM: Who is Run Downhill?
TJT: The best place to begin our discussion is to briefly explain the project: Run Downhill is a band that cross-contextualizes our music with comic art and narrative. Each song works in conjunction with a chapter from an ongoing comic story. Our current storyline is called SPURS.
In the early 1870s, the small Western farming town of Kilbourn experiences traumatic upheaval as a new railroad spur to town nears completion. A series of inexplicable deaths has the town on edge, while residents point an accusing finger back at the railroad company. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure quietly returns to push his fantastic scheme one step closer to completion.
Run Downhill is T.J. Troy—songwriter/producer/drummer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist; Nate LaPointe —pedal steel/electric and acoustic guitar/background vocals; Adam Levy—bass/background vocals; Tom Moose—acoustic guitar/mandolin/violin/background vocals; Ken Lasaine—baritone guitar.
There are several additional members of the larger creative team: Chris McFann—illustrator/artist; Quinn Salazar—illustrator/artist; Scott Angle—illustrator/artist; Eddie Young—video editor; Scott Manzo —audio mix/mastering engineer; Juli Emmel—live show co-producer/programmer/guest artist.
IM: What can you share with us about your backgrounds? Where do you all come from? How did you get together?
TJT: The story of Run Downhill begins in 2009: I had been writing a great deal of material for an instrumental chamber music group, the Freshly Squeezed Music Ensemble (FSME), found myself creating repertoire that didn’t exactly suit the group, and shelved it for a later date. The later date arrived in mid-2011, when I decided to record that material for inclusion within a music licensing catalog. I enlisted the help of my fellow studio professionals here in Los Angeles to make a six-song EP entitled “Giants;” as that music was coming together so nicely, I asked the players to play some local gigs, and from there we began working more in and around Los Angeles. We are all freelance music professionals, either folks I knew from my time at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts, where I did my Master’s degree in Percussion Performance), or from my years of playing freelance gigs around town.
I grew up in North Central Washington State, among the apple and cherry orchards of the Wenatchee Valley. Nate is from Laramie, WY; Tom grew up in Germany, but has lived in California for more than a decade; Adam was born in Kentucky, but grew up in New York, and Ken is a Los Angeles native. In terms of vibe, we’re a West Coast band.
As that first EP was nearing completion, I enlisted Scott Angle to create the covers; in our discussions, I told him the story of our name, Run Downhill. He was so moved by that story, he immediately asked, “Can I draw that?” When that image arrived two weeks later, I had an instantaneous flash of insight, a veritable Big Bang, and an entire world burst into being in my mind, complete with its own mythology. I never had such an epiphany before; I was compelled to tell these stories, and the best way to tell them was with music and visual narrative combined.
Hence, the move towards comic book art and narrative was a natural one. I’m a lifelong reader of comic books, and a published author of prose and poetry, and I’ve always looked for opportunities to bring these two worlds together. With this project, I decided to create that opportunity myself and steer it in the direction I felt was most appropriate. Self-publishing was the best and most available solution.
IM: Where have you performed?
TJT: We play mostly at dedicated music venues and art galleries, places where people want to sit down and listen to music. We have played at a variety of bars/honkytonks/clubs, etc., but we’ve found most success in self-producing our shows at venues where we can control the environment. One major component of our live shows is our Song Comic projections (which I’ll discuss in greater detail later); we edit the comic book artwork together into motion comics, which are projected while the band performs live. This creates an all-sensory immersive environment—the audience watches the visual imagery, reads dialogue bubbles, and listens to the music playing live. This deep immersion is the mainstay of the project itself, as our goal is to create enriching, holistic, “real-life” media experiences.
IM: Who (or what) would you consider to be formative influences on your sound?
TJT: I’ve always called this project ‘Johnny Cash meets Tortoise’. That’s still pretty much on the nose these days, as I’m always bringing the music back to what I know, which is classic country music, and indy- and post-rock sounds of the mid and late 90s. Other influences include North Indian and Middle Eastern classical music (two distinctly different styles, but I’m very active as a play in both of those worlds), and other American folk/pop styles. As a writer, I’m very inspired by Haruki Murakami’s magical realism, Grant Morrison’s metafiction, and Jeff Lemire’s beautiful writer/artist stylings.
I grew up listening to the Oak Ridge Boys, Van Halen, the Statler Brothers, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, and early 1920s/30s Dixieland jazz. My parents’ record collection included titles from Umm Koulthum and Ravi Shankar, right next to ABBA and Itzhak Perlman. I’m the youngest of six kids, and we all played growing up, so music was constantly in the home, always somebody practicing, always somebody listening.
And then I read. I read almost anything I could get my hands on (still do), and the comic book bug hit me when I was three or four years old, very young. Most people associate comic books with what I would call ‘Superhero comic books,’ but there are so many subgenres and styles of comic book narrative: detective stories, war stories, romance stories, stories for the young and the old, and on and on. Run Downhill is essentially a Western ghost story.
I’ve had many people ask me, “Why country music?” For me, country music refers to an approach, an ideal, or value, as much as it refers to a sound. Most contemporary country music from Nashville is really another form of pop music and it serves its purpose well, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. Traditional country music has always evoked a set of values that are quite dear to me. It is straightforward and honest and very difficult to hide within. As a musician that values another musician’s ability to play and sing, I can relate.
Country music also speaks to the reality of loss as well as any other form of music, and that’s a lot of what I write about here. It’s in my blood and bones, as much as anything else could be.
IM: Run Downhill blends its music with comic art and graphic novels, something you’ve dubbed “Song Comics”. What exactly is a Song Comic?
TJT: Let me begin answering this question by defining Run Downhill as being ‘object oriented’. It is about the physical construct of the comic book and the album (whether it is CD, vinyl, or otherwise). The effect of holding a physical comic book in your hands, physically turning the pages, actually interacting with the object itself, is the cornerstone of the user experience, and we take great care in developing the physical products, from the cards and stickers to the comics/albums themselves. Our online content, while it has great value and potential to reach a broader audience, is not intended to replace this experience, but simply augment it.
Our music is shared with our audience across three separate platforms: traditional media formats, including CDs/mp3 audio and printed comic books; our live performances, which include our comic narratives projected alongside our live music; and lastly, the Song Comic, which is essentially a music video with embedded text, released in a sequential order, and our most potent online offering.
The Song Comic format is the true amalgamation of the individual elements of Run Downhill’s creative outpouring: we edit the internal artwork of the comic book as a motion comic video, bringing the illustrations to life like a puppeteer breathes life into a marionette. The Song Comics are edited in such a way as to guide the viewer through the same path a reader would take through a given page, adding some light animation where it would enhance the story, then set alongside our studio recordings. These are not animated cartoons, but rather something closer to Balinese shadow puppetry: the flat, two-dimensional figures moving against the backdrop will (hopefully) remind viewers of Ken Burns’ animations/documentaries, where still images are panned in and out to create the illusion of motion.
I do not consider our music to be the ‘soundtrack’ or ‘score’ to our comic books: film/television scores function in a very programmatic manner, being completely subservient and reactionary to the visual imagery. Our Song Comic format is designed to maintain the autonomy of both elements, comic and song, and bring them together to create a third and distinct media experience. You can (and should!) listen to the music away from the comics and read the comics away from the songs. But the Song Comic gives the viewer the opportunity to do both simultaneously. Plus, it gives our audience a chance to interact with our content using their phones and tablets, and folks seem to like that part of the project.
IM: Could you outline the creation process? How do you make one? And roughly how long does it take you?
TJT: Nine out of ten times, I begin with a song. I write songs regularly and when I land on a good one, I usually have a good idea as to how a song can be used inside a given narrative structure.
I should offer a quick aside: at this point, I have a very clear vision of how the current narrative in our SPURS storyline will play out. I know where the story will take us, and in order to properly support that narrative structure, I often need to compose songs specifically for a scene.
But most often, because I’m so heavily steeped in the writing of the music and stories simultaneously, my songs tend to come out in good service of the narrative I’m working with. If a song doesn’t fit where I am in the narrative, I save it for something else. As of now, I’ve compiled close to 50 songs that are “Run Downhill” songs, but my current narrative only employs about 26 of those songs. The others can either be placed with other stories later in the continuity, or they can be shared simply as the songs they are.
By the time I get a song into a good working order, I move to a demo stage. I record everything in my own project studio, which is absolutely wonderful and, at this point, essential to this project’s sustainability, as it allows me to keep my overhead low. I take great care in creating these demos, as they become the de facto arrangement and final version of the song. I do not share the songs with anyone until this process is completed. I play all the instruments, sing all the parts, etc. Thereafter, I create a written chart and the chart and demos are placed in the hands of the musicians.
We rehearse the tune for as long as we need to. As rehearsals progress, I then turn to the writing of the comic story: the stories are pretty much “written” in my head, in that I know the relative shape of the plot(s), and merely need to tell the story in the way that best suits a) the song; b) the surrounding stories (chapters) in the comic book; c) the integrity of the characters who play the stories out; and d) a flow within live performance, as these comic stories will eventually be projected next to our live music.
At this point begins the scripting process, and here I work as fast as I can to put the story into some sort of logical shape and then edit mercilessly. I burn down the excess fat until we’re left with the barebones minimum of what’s needed to tell the story.
The comic script is an important piece of this process. As I am not an artist, and therefore cannot render the artwork myself, my task is to create instructions for a visual artist to follow. Naturally, any artist will put his/her own personal stamp on any story they draw, and I’ve been blessed with having really great artist contributors. It’s similar to how one guitar player would interpret a particular part, versus how another might interpret it. It’s all part of the fun of working with really great artists and musicians.
A professional comic artist can generally render one page per day. If we’re really on top of our game, we can get a ten-page script drawn in about two weeks. But, because life takes over, and jobs and children and spouses all require our love and attention, it generally takes a little longer. We factor that into our workflow and we’ve become quite efficient at getting this done according to the schedule we create for ourselves.
I would like also to emphasize that this process takes as long as it needs. In fact, more than one person has observed that the single definitive trait of my music is that it takes its time. As a composer/writer/creator, with any of the roles I play, I take my time, unwilling to rush anything until the idea is fully gestated. This is slow cooking at its finest. That being said, when something is done, fully cooked, the process moves with great speed: our new album, though it took many years to compile the songs, and months of pre-planning to execute the sessions, was recorded/mixed/mastered in six weeks, which is no time at all. I can move pretty quick when I need to…
IM: Your two most recent albums have used the Song Comic format. Would you share some of these comic stories with our readers? What are they about? What inspired you to write them?
TJT: Our Second EP, entitled “Kilbourn” (the name of the fictitious town that our stories take place in) was an experiment in this concept. This was a live studio album. We set up the band here at the Kilbourn House (my studio) and did the entire album in one day, all live takes, no overdubs. I brought in a three-person camera crew to film it. As we edited that footage together, we interspersed comic panels into the video from a story I wrote called “The Carousel Couple,” essentially Issue #0 of the Kilbourn Saga. So, as you watch/listen to that album, you also read the story that triggered all the action thus far in comics. In this story, the annual Town Harvest Dance turns to tragedy, as two young lovers who can’t quite get it together are gunned down in an act of needless violence.
Our next album, SPURS #1, is where the Song Comic format began in earnest. I commissioned artist Quinn Salazar to render four chapters of the story into comic form. We recorded the music in December 2013, and the stories were one at a time. We released each Song Comic in the first half of 2014 at our (then) monthly show in downtown Los Angeles. We released the collected album and comic in September 2014; it ended being 48 pages (which is big for a comic book), plus a 6-song EP.
The story begins with a mining accident. Two miners are trapped underground after a blast goes wrong. Unhurt, they explore while waiting for rescue efforts to reach them and discover a strange, glowing stream. One of the men touches the water and immediately catches fire. After leaving a grim prophecy for his partner to deliver to the townsfolk, he burns to ashes. News of the mysterious fire reaches the townsfolk, who can only watch helplessly as it claims more victims. From this, an orphan boy named Simon Rooster survives unscathed, and attracts the attention of local mystic, John Castlerock.
What inspired me to write these stories? Life. I wanted to tell the stories of real heroes, individuals who embrace hardship as part of the larger tapestry of life and view loss as an opportunity to grow as bigger and better people. I am particularly concerned with fresh water access, both for private and commercial use, as well as larger notions of human sustainability on our planet. Alongside that, I wanted to write stories for the disenfranchised. Listen to the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black;” I pretty much feel the same way.
IM: What kind of feedback have you received?
TJT: The feedback we’ve received has been enormously positive: each and all of the reviewers we’ve connected with have given SPURS #1 big thumbs up, and fans at shows have been equally blown away, especially when we perform with the projections. The main feedback we receive is that viewing the live show with projections is a lot like watching a silent movie: there are the visuals, interspersed lines of dialogue (speech bubbles), and musical accompaniment moving alongside.
We are conditioned by this point to abide by a certain protocol when we go to the movies: when the lights go down, you stop talking and focus on the screen. This is a little different when you are watching at home: you can pause, rewind, watch a scene again, and thus the experience is more user-controlled. But the rituals surrounding the movie theater experience are well-rehearsed, codified, and accepted by the audience.
I observe a similar protocol at our shows when the projections are involved: we structure our shows to begin with some music from the band without the projections and then, at a certain point in the set, the lights dim and the Song Comic portion of the program begins. From my perch behind the drum set, I observe the audience’s total absorption into the film. The band virtually disappears, all focus is centered on the images and the text bubbles. What we’ve heard from audiences is that this is a very exciting format to watch a film, or in this case, a comic book.
IM: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? How did you resolve them? (Or how are you resolving them?)
TJT: That spins off of the previous question. Our audience is thoroughly immersed in our process and our concept, but because we are only a few songs/chapters into the story, people are still sorting out who’s who and what’s what. It’s a lot to ask of the audience in a live setting, as there is an enormous amount of information presented. Most comic books, especially superhero and related genres, move extraordinarily fast through their plots, even in a single issue. I chose to deliberately move slowly, and by nature of music meeting image, I chose to keep my settings relatively stable within any given song.
Another fun challenge for me, as a writer and composer, was to tell the story with a larger emphasis on visual narrative, as opposed to dialogue/written narrative. This mainly came after we released the Kilbourn EP: audiences complained that there were too many words to read too quickly. So, part of my learning curve was to adjust the amount of dialogue, and give more space for the images to tell the story. The solution was to slow the pace down, and to narrate with an extraordinarily terse language, something I still spend a great deal of time navigating.
Lastly, I will say the largest issue I face with the project is that of sustainability. My goal is to be able to release one “issue” per month, each issue being two Song Comic chapters, equal to two songs and about 20 pages per issue. In the past two years since I began developing this format, I’ve produced six Song Comics, approximately 72 pages of artwork, 32 minutes of projections, and the songs that accompany them, and the only reason for that is the budgeting. We’ve had one successful crowdfunding campaign that I ran in mid-2014, but aside from that, the expense has come out of pocket.
In the long run, if that’s the only issue I encounter, then it’s barely enough to bat an eye at. As it stands, the development of works is a bit slower than I would like, but it feels quite good to have complete ownership over my own destiny. And, I’ve considered this time to be my “beta testing” period, so I can work out the kinks in the process, find what works and what doesn’t, and continue better equipped to share these songs and stories more effectively.
IM: How are you handling the publicity and promotion end?
TJT: This, too, spins out from your earlier question. I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to promotion. I still believe that the most effective way to promote and publicize creative projects is by word of mouth. Getting out in front of people, playing shows, talking about the project, that’s the only real tried and true method of growing a fan base; everything else is quite speculative. The internet/social media have not been kind to us yet, we’ve not seen the type of engagement that I would have hoped for, but at the same time, our creative team is all working professionals, and simply doesn’t take the time to engage social media to exploit it for what it has to offer, and in order for social media to ‘work’ for you, it must be engaged.
There is a very common misconception among creators (and booking agents), and I see it happen a lot with musicians: the attitude of ‘If you build it, they will come’ is simply incorrect. I think there are many who believe the internet is a place where once you build it, people will either come to it or they won’t, and that that particular level of engagement is enough to quantify success or failure. (Look at the booking practices of most music venues: if you don’t have enough ‘likes,’ you don’t get booked.) To me, when social media engagement becomes a value judgment of “good” or “bad” music and art, that’s a problem.
It is essential for the independent artist to accept that, along with being a creator, an innovator, or a performer, one must also be a salesman. And that can often be a bitter pill for many artists to swallow, especially when there is an attitude that working to sell your musical/artistic product constitutes ‘selling out,’ or makes you appear selfish. (Look at Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple, demanding appropriate royalties for using her music during Apple Music’s introductory period.) Too many people stand on the broken premise of “I don’t promote myself; I let my work speak for me.” However noble that may be, it is not included in the recipe for success in today’s industry.
The internet changed a great number of things, especially music commerce, but above all, it just made us lazy. I think when we put too much emphasis on connecting via electronic means, we lose our ability to connect person-to-person, and that’s a real tragedy, especially for younger generations. People don’t support ‘projects’ or ‘concepts;’ people support people.
IM: What advice would you give someone just starting out, either in music or in comics today?
TJT: Be completely honest in all interactions with all people; do not tell lies.
Remember: no fear, no jealousy.
Stay true to your vision, be willing to take criticisms to heart and learn from them, but ignore those that do not serve you.
Learn to differentiate between art and craft. Hold your artistic values up as high as you can, do not compromise them, but always be in a constant state of renewal when it comes to the craft. Practice your instrument; practice writing songs; practice writing comics; practice your sales pitch. Do not take the attitude of “I’m very talented, and talent is worth more than effort.” Remember, at the top end of the ladder are the most talented people in the world, and the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is their work ethic. Please, take this to heart, friends.
Become comfortable with who you are and take ownership of all success and failure. Handle success with grace and humility, but do not deny it, and take ownership of your failures and shortcomings without allowing them to define you.
Lastly, it’s all about networking, but instead of going out and trying to meet the “right” people, take great pleasure in meeting everybody. This is the single greatest part about comic conventions: it’s the greatest way to meet new fans and share ideas and experiences with them, and everybody, everywhere, has something wonderful to share. Make that sharing a big part of your life, and not only will your career benefit, your soul will benefit as well.
You have a new comic coming out soon with two Song Comic chapters. Can you give us some hints about what to expect?
TJT: Yes! The upcoming album is called Midnight Road Trip and includes SPURS #2.1—Preview. Basically, there are seven songs on the record and two of them are Song Comics. They are Chapters 7 and 8 respectively. This is a little out of order, as SPURS #1 ended at Chapter 4, but I chose these two chapters, as you don’t need the entire backstory in order to enjoy these tales.
The other songs on the record are some very old ones (one track, “Kickin’ it,” was penned back in 2002, I believe), and some very new ones (“Name Your Price” was penned in March of this year). They don’t necessarily have a comic component (although one song, “I Beg Your Pardon,” will appear as Chapter 9 in the upcoming SPURS #2 book), but are some of our favorite songs to play live, and audiences have been asking for recorded versions, so here you go!
In terms of the stories, we start to see what the main source of conflict is all about: we meet a young man with horrible rage issues and witness his floundering attempts at defending a woman’s honor, and through the eyes of a naïve sheriff’s deputy, we interview a murder suspect.
IM: What else is currently on your horizon?
TJT: I’m pretty much booked solid until Christmas. In September, we have a month full of different pre-release events before the official release date on September 27. September 12 and 13, we will be at the Long Beach Comic Con, selling pre-release copies of the book, meeting folks, and participating in some of the panel discussions (if you’ve never been to a comic convention, check one out soon!), and similarly on September 19 and 20, we will be at the Rose City Comic Con in Portland, OR. September 21, I’ll be playing a solo set at Hattie’s Hat in Seattle, and more shows both in Portland/Seattle area and Long Beach are soon to be announced.
After that, I start work on an experimental opera called Hopscotch that takes place in various locations across Los Angeles: the audience rides in a limo to a site, gets out of the car and watches a scene, and then rides on to the next scene somewhere else in the city. It’s environmental by design, with a fragmented, non-linear narrative, and that’s always fun to witness. It’s a great role they have for me. I’m looking forward to it.
December, the current plan is solo percussion concerts in China for 2–3 weeks, although those plans have not been confirmed. Aside from all that, it’s my regular schedule of performing, teaching, and creating more Run Downhill materials! We are also looking for potential publishing/distribution partners, so hopefully, by that point in the year, we’ll have some traction on that end.
IM: Is there anything you’d like to share that we haven’t yet touched on?
TJT: First off, Thank You Ellen! This has been tons of fun!
The last thought I have for readers is a veritable call to arms. The fans are those truly in charge of the direction that the music/entertainment industry will take, and that in itself is a great responsibility. If you desire quality art/music/entertainment, then pursue it and take part in the communities that support it. Go to live events, listen to new music, read new comics, and invest time in learning more about what’s out there. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.
And, most importantly, when you do discover something, take a moment to sound off on it, both in social media circles, and publicly among friends and like-minded people. As a creator, I love to share my work with fans, and love it even more when the fans share with their friends.
IM: Finally, how can people keep up with you and your work?
And, please, drop me a line to say hello! We want to start including fan letters in our comics, so if you have a thought or question or just a shout out, write me and chances are they will end up in a book!
S.A. Baker: once a rocker, now a competitive bagpiper and writer. He makes his home in Ayr, Ontario with his wife and children. Besides working in a nursing home, S.A. hides in the closet to write, hoping no one opens the door. Between work, bagpiping and his family, he tries to sneak away to put pen to paper whenever he can. He submitted his baby, Winterbourne, to independent publisher Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications and prayed for a response.
IM: Tell us a little about yourself.
SAB: I am a 46-year-old recovering professional musician who is trying to pull bodies out of a sausage grinder without going crazy, period. Oh, wait. That’s Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. I like hats and sometimes wish I had more than one head. I spend an inordinate amount of time inside my own head and the worlds I’ve created there, which seems to finally be coming to some kind of fruition.
IM: You spent a decade as a professional touring musician. What instrument did you play and what type of music?
SAB: I played upright bass in The Frantic Flattops, a rockabilly/psychobilly band from Rochester, NY for six and a half years, and then switched to electric bass and started a kind of all-star band called Bee Eater—a kind of Black Sabbath meets the Ramones meets the Who with a girl singer—which turned into a gigantic song writing outlet for me.
IM: What made you start writing?
SAB: I always wrote, even if it was just inside my head… in fact, it was mostly inside my head. I remember winning a writing contest in grade school and winning a copy of a book of Canadian ghost stories. I felt like I had won the Pulitzer Prize. When the band was on tour, I would write freelance travel pieces for a now-defunct local rock rag that were very Hunter Thompsonesque, where I would put myself in a given situation and wait for the madness of everyday living to take hold and then write about it. I would read them to the other two in the band before I sent them in. If I got big laughs, I’d send them straight away. If the laughter was scattered, I’d dial up the lunacy around us, wait for something else bizarre to happen, and then rewrite it. I went through a very long stretch of self-doubt, when I didn’t feel I was writing anything worth reading, so I began to write less and less, and I eventually forgot how much fun it was to write because I liked to do it. I eventually found my way back through NaNoWriMo. (Shameless plug)
IM: How did you come up with the concept of your novel?
SAB: I work the nightshift in a nursing home. Death is an ever-present entity, constantly lurking in the shadows and waiting, always waiting for the next name on the list. I think it just sort of wormed its way into my subconscious, given my surroundings and near chronic sleep deprivation. I do, however, have a fairly skewed and black way of looking at the world, so it was only natural that it ended up the way it did.
IM: How did you think of the title?
SAB: Initially, I was trying to write some gigantic Lord of the Rings type fantasy book about someone or something imbued with the powers of winter, hence Winterbourne. The story idea, mercifully, didn’t last long, but I liked the title, so I kept it.
IM: Is there a real town called Winterbourne?
SAB: There is! I found it last year, quite by accident, outside of Fergus, Ontario.
IM: What did you do when you found Winterbourne?
SAB: I pulled my car over and got out to look around. I may have even slapped myself to make sure it wasn’t a hallucination.
IM: What do your family and friends think about the publication of your novel?
SAB: In a way, they’re almost more excited about it than I am. It all still seems a little surreal to me.
IM: Tell us about your writing process.
SAB: I tend to always be writing, thinking about either what I am currently working on or the next one. When I do finally begin, I usually write the first draft in longhand and begin to edit on the fly, as I type it into my laptop. I usually take six weeks between first draft and second, but then, I edit and rewrite until the story is told.
IM: So, you can tell stories. What is your next step now that Winterbourne is being published?
SAB: I always enjoyed stories that revolved around a single thing. In my case, it is the town of Winterbourne. That is the constant and there are many stories that live in the crumbling buildings and shadow-covered alleys. I’m working on the second draft of the next book and thinking seriously about the third.
IM: What is the hardest part about being published?
SAB: I don’t know that there is a hard part. Maybe being expected to write more books? How horrid that a writer should write more books.
IM: Did you have to do much editing after being accepted for publishing? Tell us about the process.
SAB: More editing than I figured I would have to do, yes. The editor of Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications would send me several chapters at a time, with the edits and suggestions highlighted. I would edit and send them back and we would keep going back and forth like that until it was all finished and everyone was satisfied it was the best it could be.
IM: What did you learn while going through the editing process?
SAB: That I really, REALLY like pronouns.
IM: If you were to say anything to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
SAB: Always be writing and always be reading. I love TV and I love my computer, but they’ll steal the soul of your book faster than you can possibly imagine. Don’t listen to the whys in your life, listen to the why nots.
I am always jealous of those who can do it all. I’m talking about creators who write, draw, color, letter, and publish their own works. Sometimes they are better at one thing than another, but not 38-year-old Jay Mooers from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. This guy is proficient at all of it. His stories are on-point and so is every stage of his art. This makes the jealousy level even higher for me, but provides the reader with a well-rounded, timely, crafted piece of work from one man with a vison.
IM: How did you come to start making comics?
JM: I used to dabble in comics when I was younger. I never really collected them, but I was always fascinated and intimidated by them. There were just so many, and I knew with my compulsive nature, I would have to find a way to collect them all. I instead collected funny comics like Garfield and Heathcliff. (When I was young, my family got two cats, so I was into cat things at the time.) Through college, I started discovering my true passion was in telling stories. My degree project was my first graphic novel. But then, I put that style away and continued as a hired illustrator, portrait, and mural artist. I had many started concepts rolling around in my head, with sketches and outlines filling my bookshelves. In 2009, I decided to write and illustrate my first novel to completion, titled Illweed. Once I had realized I could do complete works on my own, I went back to my treasure trove of almost-forgotten stories and found one that I wanted to write next, Autumn Grey. I wrote about 200 pages before the massiveness of the story completely overwhelmed me. I had to find a way of breaking it down into manageable chunks. So I teamed up with a friend of mine, Kristi McDowell who, with her expertise of comics and her editing skills, helped guide me through my first issue. When it was finished, I tried to peddle it to friends and family. I had just finished the second issue when Kristi introduced me to Free Comic Book Day, where I brought my books to a comic shop and actually sold out of them. It was remarkable. I had tasted comic blood and I wanted more.
IM: What made you want to start your own label?
JM: I originally didn’t want to start my own label. I wanted to be taken under the wing by a publishing company like Image or Vertigo. I had no experience and had no idea the sheer numbers of comics that were thrown to those publishers on a daily basis. All I knew was that I wanted to tell my stories my way. I quickly learned about all the wonderful options in printing and digital comics that were available for someone who wasn’t taken under the wing of a massive company. So, Kristi and I started our own label called Eden Park Tales. Autumn Grey was its flagship comic and we planned other ones to follow. We knew that if the world liked our comic enough, the big names would hopefully come looking for us.
IM: Tell us about Eden Park Tales and the types of books you’re producing.
JM: Eden Park Tales was created as a sandbox for fantasy tales. We led it with Autumn Grey, which is a tale about a fictional place in New Hampshire where faeries and monsters go to hide away from the world, and how it affects the people who live there. I then brought my original novel Illweed under the label. Then Kristi’s graphic novel, A Planet’s Cry, about time on Earth breaking down and different time periods melting into each other, brought us even more attention with the comic community. Kristi and I have gone our separate ways since then, but we are both thriving in very different genres.
IM: What is the hardest part about being the do-it-all guy?
JM: Yes, I am a do-it-all guy. I write the story, draw, ink, color, letter, publish, and then promote and sell the books. It is a daunting task and I know I’ve taken on at least five full time jobs doing this all on my own. I enjoy working with other people on many other projects, but stories like Autumn Grey and my future comics, Dusters and Bloodlines, along with my second full-length novel (due out at the end of the year) titled Scales and Sand, are all very personal pieces. These books are my art. Every bit of each of these tales is created from my own experiences, dreams, and imagination. They are like abstract portraits of their creator.
IM: Tell us about your new novel Scales and Sand.
JM: Illweed, my first solo project, keeps selling well through the years. I’ve sold out of copies at conventions on several occasions. I’ve even received emails from children and parents asking for a sequel. I toiled with the possibility of a sequel and couldn’t find the right tale. Illweed felt complete to me, but the world it existed in seemed riddled with possibilities. Scales and Sand takes place in the same world as Illweed, and there are little references and goodies throughout the book for those who have read the first book. But Scales and Sand is completely free-standing and independent of Illweed. While Illweed was geared towards a younger audience, Scales and Sand is a longer and more serious story about a girl and her family who are ambushed in the Red Sea, a hostile desert. She is brought to a mysterious city, deep in the Red Sea, where she uncovers the great secrets of this hidden world.
IM: Who are the main characters?
JM: Aria Dannes is the main character. She is a girl from an upper middle class family. She is privileged and takes it for granted. When her family is ambushed and carted away by the mysterious Mirans, she loses everything and must learn that her actions make her a better person, not her materials. Captain Cadence Cree is a leader from the Miran Empire who doesn’t remember anything about her past. But when she meets Aria, unfamiliar memories start to stir and the cloud that covers her mind begins to break apart. The main antagonist in this tale is a man who calls himself the Crimson Foil. He’s a mysterious man with little regard for others. He will kill them and cast them aside if he feels they are in his way. His casual manner of murdering is only dwarfed by his passion for playing music. Who is this dangerous man, and why is he lurking through the halls of Mira?
IM: What is in the future for your label?
JM: After the trade books of Autumn Grey and Scales and Sand come out this year, I’ll be working on the next chapter of Autumn Grey and the first issue of a new series, Dusters. I’m hoping to continue growing my fan base and to get this book into the hands of people who can promote it far better than I can.
IM: What other books do you have getting ready to release, or just recently released?
JM: Autumn Grey #5 was released a few months ago, and the trade of 1–5 will be available very soon. I have a short story in a current Kickstarter, titled My Peculiar Family. I also have a few other projects on the drawing board, including a second comic for a new convention in Saratoga Springs called 0Chase Con, and a fun time traveling story I’ve been working on with a writing friend of mine, called The Hunter’s Paradox.
IM: If you could give a piece of advice to any creators wanting to “break into comics,” what would it be?
JM: Do it! Draw, write, make something that you can show people! I spent too many years sitting on my ideas. These days, you can easily print something yourself. Bring it to conventions, or comic stores, or even into online groups. Social media has made it much easier to share your ideas with the outside world. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Every time I get a bad review or someone insults my work, I puff up my chest and feel even more determined to prove them wrong.
IM: Where can people find your books?
JM: You can order my books through my website, www.edenparktales.com or get them digitally through Comixology. Some comic stores that carry them are listed on my webpage. Feel free to check out my site and download the freebie teaser book! It’s the best price—free!
What Julia Child was to cuisine, what Stirling Moss was to racing, what John Glenn was to space, Chuck Dixon is to the comic book and animated TV world. Chuck Dixon is a veteran comic book writer with thousands of titles to his name, including a record run on Batman at DC. Much to his fans’ delight, Chuck has recently moved into the genre of true crime fiction. I’ll be honest with my readers; I hadn’t read a comic book since Archie and Veronica. While doing my research for this interview, wherever I went in the comic book world, the aficionados told me I was in the presence of royalty. Today, we’re going to read about Chuck’s writing process, where he finds the characters for his stories, and what led him to murder mysteries.
IM: Where do you write? Do you have a special room, shed, barn, special space for your writing? Or tell us about your ‘dream’ work space.
CD: I work in what is described by realtors as a “home office.” It’s basically a cubby hole filled with books and toys. It’s where I work since moving to Florida. My dream work space was the office I had up north; a big addition to the house, with built-in bookshelves and lots of room for artwork on the walls.
IM: Do you have any special rituals when you sit down to write? (A neat work space, sharpened #2 pencils, legal pad, cup of tea, glass of brandy, favorite pajamas, etc.?)
CD: Does checking emails count? A neat work space is NOT a priority. All I require is enough desk space for my keyboard. A mug of mate or tea is nice.
IM: Could you tell us something about yourself that we might not already know?
CD: When I was a kid I found the metal-munching mice in the Bullwinkle cartoons frightening. For some reason, the idea of a huge robotic mouse climbing to the top of the house to eat our TV antenna unsettled me.
IM: You are such an icon in the comic book and animated TV world. What inspired you to switch from that genre to writing fiction?
CD: I simply got tired of waiting for someone else’s permission to write. The possibilities offered by digital publishing are endless. Why go through the painful, tedious, and often fruitless, process of pitches and development when I can simply go from idea to finished product on my own? I turned to prose because of the massive production expenses involved with doing comics. My only investment is my time. And, truth to tell, there are a lot more people who read prose than read comics. I’m reaching readers now that I never could have reached writing comic books.
IM: Was it a challenge to switch to a novel format and ‘point-of-view’?
CD: Mostly, it was the intimidation factor. In comics, my chosen medium, the bench for writing talent is pretty thin. But in prose fiction I’m up against thousands of years of awesome writing. I mean, who the hell do I think I am, going to work in the same shop as Alexander Dumas or Jane Austen?
And now I have to actually write descriptive text that evokes images in the minds of casual readers. In comics, my descriptions are utilitarian. I simply tell the artist what needs to be in the panel. It’s not artful in any way. In prose fiction I need to be more subtle; more circumspect. More of a wordsmith, which is something I have never considered myself to be.
But pacing, plotting, characterization, and all the rest are the same for comics as they are for prose.
IM: Do you have a set time each day to write, or do you write only when you are feeling creative?
CD: I write even when I don’t feel like it. The crushing deadlines of comics taught me that. Writer’s block? Phah! You have to hunt down those muses and cage them.
IM: What’s your best advice to other writers for overcoming procrastination?
CD: I read an interview with a screen writer who said that he never writes down his last idea of the day. In that way, he knows where he’s going to begin the next day. It sounds like a silly gimmick, but trust me, it works. It’s like having the pump primed before I even sit down to write. Because getting started is the second hardest part of writing.
The first hardest part is that middle passage where I’m past the halfway point and have convinced myself that everything I’m doing sucks.
IM: Where/when do you first discover your characters?
CD: I tend to define my characters through their actions. They have to be up for what I’m going to put them through in the story. Once I have the story, I build the character that can make that story happen. I prefer solid stories populated with interesting characters rather than stories that are only about the characters with the story being secondary. I’m not into “portrait” stories.
And my characters, beyond the basic requirements of the story, are either created from whole cloth or constructed from people I know or have met.
IM: What inspires your story/stories?
CD: I never know how to answer that. Mostly, I write the kind of stuff I’d like to read.
IM: Do you ‘get lost’ in your writing?
CD: Yes. That’s when it’s all going right. When eight or ten pages of solid, useable stuff seem to flow from my brain to the page.
IM: Who or what is your “muse” at the moment?
CD: Is it corny to say that my readership is my muse? The fact that my stuff is being read by an audience who likes it and wants more drives me more than almost anything else. Anything else except my compulsion to make things up, of course.
This new feature with the Kindle program, where you can see how many pages are being read each day, is compelling. For a writer, it’s as close to performing live as I’ll ever get. I can release a novel and see how many people are reading it that day. My latest, Levon’s Night, was being read within hours of becoming available. It’s a kick to see that.
IM: When did you begin to write seriously?
CD: When I started getting paid. I fiddled with comics stuff a lot, drawing my own stuff because I didn’t have an artist to work with. I worked doing storyboards for an ad agency. I wasn’t one to write short stories or poetry or anything. I didn’t fill notebooks with treatments and characters and such. My first paying work was in children’s books. That’s when it became real for me. Deadlines, contracts, and a paycheck. That’s when it looked like I might be able to write for a living.
IM: How long after that were you published?
CD: Immediately. But a better question would be, ‘How long between that first job and your second one?’ An eternity. I was a year between writing gigs in kids’ books. It was all hustle for little reward.
IM: What makes a writer great?
CD: If a writer’s work can survive a few generations past his initial readership. History is filled with writers who were considered white hot in their era and forgotten only a few years past their death and never re-discovered.
IM: What does the process of going from “no book” to “finished book” look like for you?
CD: Everyone works differently. No writer’s approach is the same as another. I usually start with the Big Scene. It’s the moment of highest drama or suspense. It’s Kong atop the Empire State Building or Birnam Wood coming to Macbeth’s castle.
Then I need to create a story to justify that scene or situation. I begin working out the logic that might lead my characters to that moment. How does that bulldozer wind up on the roof of a skyscraper? When does the lead character learn that the man he’s been hunting is his son?
Once I’ve worked out a chain of events that makes my story seem like something compelling enough for someone I’ve never met to want to read it, I think about where the story should start.
When I have that opening scene worked out in my head, I start writing. Some of the connections are still tenuous in my mind and some of the characters are only sketched in. But I have a skeleton of a plot either in my head or scribbled on a few pages of a notebook. It’s enough for me to start and begin working through the moves for my cast.
I make it through that painful middle passage to the downslope and then, if I haven’t already, I work out where I want to end. I always know how I want to end but not always where. I want my main character to come out the winner in the final chapters. That’s in the nature of the escapist fiction I write. But pat endings suck. Sometimes I’ll bring things to an abrupt end as a kind of shock to the reader. Like that final shove against the safety bar at the end of a roller coaster ride. In my first Levon Cade book I ended with a chapter that was like a sad little coda to the action that came before. I felt it added to the grim events that preceded it by showing that there were ongoing implications to the choices a character had made in the story.
IM: How have your life experiences influenced your writing/stories?
CD: I was sick a lot as a kid. I mean, extended hospital stays. I think that kind of isolated me a bit during a time when my brain was developing. I could create rich imaginary worlds just to entertain myself. It also made me an observer, as opposed to a participant. All writers are, to some degree, outsiders.
IM: Have you, or do you want to write in another genre?
CD: I’ve done a bit in the western genre and want to do more. I love westerns more than any other genre. I’d also like to write more straight historical fiction. My Bad Times series, which is a time travel action thing, is way to kind of stick my oar into the historical epic. But I’d like to take a shot at a story set entirely in another era.
A straight-up mystery story would be a goal as well. But mysteries don’t come easy to me. I’ve written them in comics form and learned that a workable mystery that is compelling, and not contrived, is hard work.
IM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
CD: I will be continuing the Levon Cade and Bad Times series. I’ll have a Levon novella out before Christmas. I’m finishing it now. It’s called Levon’s Ride and it will feature some artwork by a top illustrator. More on that later.
You wrote it. They read it. And everyone said, “It sucks!”
The comments range from ‘introduced too many named characters too fast’ to ‘shifted points of view too often’. Some commenters say that the episodes have too much detail and it was distracting, while others say they were confused.
They were confused? Bet it made your head swim.
It’s happened to every writer. We hammer out a great story, only to have critiquing readers give the above feedback. None of us are immune to it. Heck, I get it from those who critique my work all the time. It makes you believe that rethinking the whole story is the only way to go. And that’s a chore when the work is hitting over 70,000 words.
There is a solution, but it will not work for everything you write.
Frame the Story
Have you read Arabian Nights? The stories are a lot of self-contained anecdotes gathered together over centuries, and linked together by a common narrator. Poor Scheherazade. The stories center on her need to captivate the sultan’s interest each night—or be beheaded. Not an easy task.
Think you suffer for your craft?
Scheherazade starts and ends each narrative in the first person, making an opening and concluding anecdote. We never forget she is telling the stories.
Steal her idea, and make it your own. Here’s how:
The ‘I’ Voice – First Person Narration
Introduce the narrator by having them talk directly to the reader. This makes them generate a vested interest in the tale. The reader will become comfortable with this and get pulled into the story.
Oroonoko, published in 1688, is a short work of prose fiction by Aphra Behn (1640–1689). The story begins by addressing the reader: “Reader, I was myself an Eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down!” Don’t dare argue with a lady from the 17th century. This opening causes us to trust her, and draws us into a story. Unfortunately, we find out she is a liar.
Once they’ve bonded with the first person narrator, the reader considers them reliable and will continue with their tale. New characters can be introduced, clarifying the point of view and apologizing for dumping a lot of information.
Let’s apply this trick to a problem story.
What’s in a Name?
There’s Jarred, Michael, Lee, Grady, Pat, Flint, Nick, Randy, David, Walt, Anna, Yolanda, Charles, Zed, Barbara, and Unis all sitting at the bar, ordering drinks.
A steadfast rule is to not present more than three named characters per scene per episode. Have you ever been to a party where people just introduce you to everyone? After the third person, your head is swimming. How do you remember all those people? Now, take away their faces and just introduce them. Did that work for you? No? Imagine what your reader feels like when you dump a whole bunch of names on the page for them.
Don’t get me wrong: some novelists introduce casts of thousands, but just about every reader forgets the names by the second chapter (if not before the end of the first).
Note, introducing each character with a mnemonic device will allow the reader to remember them. Give characters a signature, like a twitch, or have them mumble a greeting.
An even better device is to not name your secondary characters at all. Just give them labels, like ‘the barman’, or ‘the guy with the big nose’. They fade into the background after being introduced, anyway.
But what if you need to introduce a lot of characters? The scene is a murder or something, and all the people present, suspects. Heck, have the narrator apologize for all the name dropping. You could even make it a little humorous: “Hell, I heard all the names as well, but damned if I remember them.”
So, there is a fix for all those people you just dropped on the reader. Try it, and get away with introducing all those dwarfs to a lonely hobbit, Mr. Tolkien.
Abrupt POV Shifts
So you need to switch POV, and you need to do it now. Why? Who cares? Bev has a problem and you want to show John having a problem halfway around the world. It’s your story, right? There’s no obvious plot link yet. So how do you get away with the transition?
Let your narrator do the work!
Thomas of Reading (1590) is littered with it, but Homer seems to have invented it. The slide from one character’s head to another. It works. Their stories contain dozens of different, diverting anecdotes that never confuse the reader.
The narrator does the work by coming right out and saying, “I must now leave Brenda in her desert bivouac with great reluctance…” and thus, the POV changes.
The suggestion, though, is not to do it unless you have a number of manuscripts accepted. Such a release may cause readers to not want to finish your work.
It’s all in the Small Details
Have you ever researched a book before? Been tempted to just DUMP all the information you discovered on the reader? Many of us have. And believe me, it is not something that you want to do all the time. It’s called info dumping, and it can kill your manuscript’s pace. It is equivalent to saying you’ve done your homework. But if your writing is clean, the reader will already know you’ve done it.
Try this for an example:
Gregory turned left onto the dirt road known as Mnt Albert Road and gunned the old Malibu Classic’s big 357 V8 engine. Stones kicked as the Goodyear Tiger Paw tires (size 175 86) dug deep into the loose gravel. He smiled and wrestled the plastic steering wheel into submission. He passed McCowan Road, another loose gravel path the farmers had named after that street in the borough of Scarborough and made famous by the building of the small town centre located on the crossroads of Progress Avenue and McCowan Road.
Bored yet? And the guy is not even close to the highway he’s going to!
Yes, sometimes you need to have the details, but when to draw the line? First, let your narrator do the talking, not your research. Unveil everything in a manner that allows you to paint the picture, but not reveal every frame of the movie.
Fix info dumps by directing the reader to look where you want them to. Believe me, this will be important for your writing. Oh, don’t do a direct “Look here!” type of deal. Just make your narration gently direct their eyes to the area you want them to see.
When you take your first draft “problem” story and frame it through rewrites, you can fix the little problems. Change the POV shifts to a character assumption, remove names of lesser characters, trim down the info dumps, and point the reader to the right area of study.
This is your time to shine in the reading, so take it as you can.