Monday, October 31, 2016

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Day 25: AMONG THE STACKS: Michael James McFarland


The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Hello, Michael!!  Welcome to The Gal's 62 Days of Horror.  YOU are *Day 25* and I'm happy to have you here.  I'm actually currently reading your novel, Fallow Ground, and absolutely loving it, so this interview is pretty awesome to me.  I love knowing more about the person behind the books I'm reading, which is why I make a point to interview as many authors as I can here on The Gal.  I appreciate you being my latest.. victim.
            Let's go for easy to start this out: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Michael James McFarland:
I've been writing for over 30 years, mostly horror and suspense, and every character I create is somewhat autobiographical.  It's one of the wonderful things bout writing fiction... you can let out those hidden facets and no one knows what's you and what's made up, not even your wife or husband.  My day job is at a state residential facility (formerly a TB hospital) for the developmentally disabled. It's also a job I've done for 30+ years.  Both have been incredibly satisfying experiences.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What are five things most people don't know about you?

Michael James McFarland:
You mean five random facts I'm willing to share?  Hmm... how about four truths and a lie?
  1. I'm 53, live in Washington state, and until last summer I'd never been out of the time zone I was born in.
  2. Though Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I hate dressing up for it.
  3. I don't analyze and catalog everyone I meet for a future story.
  4. The night I met my wife (senior prom - she was there with someone else!) I was wearing a powder blue tuxedo.
  5. I have never listed cats as family members in my author bios.
The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What is the first book you remember reading?

Michael James McFarland:
Dr. Seuss.  The earliest ones I remember are Dr. Seuss's ABC and Green Eggs & Ham.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What are you reading now?

Michael James McFarland:
I just started Fall of Giants, the first book of a trilogy by Ken Follett.  Follett is one of my favorite authors - I loved The Pillars of the Earth - though he occasionally takes some odd tangents with his novels (The Hammer of EdenThe Third Twin).

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What's a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn't expect you to have liked?

Michael James McFarland:
Gone with the Wind.  Absolutely loved it.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What made you decide you want to write?  When did you begin writing?

Michael James McFarland:
Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read exclusively horror.  I combed the bookstores and supermarket racks for anything with a black cover and a title that dripped blood.  When you take in a genre like that, without discrimination, you find yourself reading a lot of crap.  It eventually got to a point where I started thinking: "I could do better than that."  During my senior year in college, I started writing on a regular basis, starting with short stories and the odd novella-length project.  Just small steps, like mountain climbing.  In 1998, I completed Fallow Ground, my first novel.  It took me two years (on and off) to work through the initial draft.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Do you have a special place you like to write?

Michael James McFarland:
Not especially, but writing - at least for me - is like putting yourself into a trance.  You have to be comfortable and there shouldn't be a lot of distractions going on.  I like to listen to music while I'm listening, but nothing with lyrics.  Classical, jazz, film scores, electronic and ambient are all good.  I find I can't write if I'm emotionally keyed up either because I can't find my way into that trance.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?

Michael James McFarland:
I generally write longhand, and in pencil for the 1st draft.  Then I rewrite that in pen (usually the next day) on a running manuscript.  After that it might sit in a drawer for five years before I type it into the computer.  Writing is not a quick process for me, and it always amazes me when I hear about an author writing a novel in 6 weeks.  I'm also envious of books that fit together like a precision watch, as if the author knew exactly what to write from Day 1.  My characters tend to lurch and struggle against expectations, like drunks trying to cross 4 lanes of heavy traffic, but that makes for a certain excitement and unpredictability.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?

Michael James McFarland:
Novels can become overwhelming things.  I generally feel most despondent when I have a lot of plot threads and no idea how to tie them up.  At that point I have to narrow my focus and take them one at a time.  It's also difficult when you see a point you want your story to arrive at, but can't see your way from where you're actually at.  The way to do it - I've found - is to try one thing, and if it doesn't work, go back to where you felt confident and start again.  No one but you will ever know it didn't work out.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What's the most satisfying thing you've written so far?

Michael James McFarland:
An autobiographical novel called Seven Years.  It begins on my first day of 6th grade and ends the night of high school graduation.  A lot of change happens to us during those years, and no one makes it through undamaged.  It's about coming of age in the late 1870s and the friends I made and discarded along the way.  I'm proud of it because it's told through teenage eyes, not those of a judgmental 30-something looking back.  It took me 7 years to write (alternating every few months with other projects) and when I finished the first draft, it was 332,200 words (1,173 manuscript pages)!  I'm in the process of revising that down somewhat [laughs out loud].

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What books have most inspired you?  Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?

Michael James McFarland:
The two books that influenced me the most, growing up, were by Stephen King.  The first was Night Shift, his first collection of short stories.  I remember reading it in the backseat of the car on a family vacation and thinking these stories, more than anything I'd ever read, were for me.  They spoke to me in a way I'd never experienced before and (up to that point) didn't know was possible.  The other was The Stand.  My two greatest fears - epidemic and social breakdown - were tackled in that book; or (more likely) created by it!  King isn't my favorite author, Peter Straub has since edged him out, but it's impossible for most horror writers today not to be influenced by him to some degree.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What do you think makes a good story?

Michael James McFarland:
Good characters, conflict, growth, and good writing.  If you've got all that, the genre doesn't matter.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What does it take for you to love a character?  How do you utilize that when creating your characters?

Michael James McFarland:
A sense of weight or realism.  That the character has a history and a unique personality, and those traits will influence his actions and decisions.  When a writer creates a character, he shouldn't be surprised when the character stubbornly refuses to go where the writer tells him to.  I've had problems like that, and occasionally a character dies on me before I'm through with them.  Kind of like real life that way.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?

Michael James McFarland:
Hard question because, as I said, they're all part of me to some degree.  I'd have to say that the protagonist of any given story - be it male or female - is most like me.  In Fallow Ground that would be Margaret.  In Duplex it would be Dan.  In Wormwood it would probably be Rudy or Shane (depending on what point of my life I was at).  Short stories aside, I don't know that I could write a novel-length story from a completely alien point of view.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Are you turned off by a bad cover?  To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?

Michael James McFarland:
Of course I am.  Everyone is, that's why we have that saying about judging a book by its cover.  there are a lot of bad covers out there, too.  I think that's inevitable with the rise of independent publishing. Cover art, unless you do it yourself, costs money, and comes with no guaranteed return.  With the exception of Fallow Ground, which was published by Blood Bound Books, I've done my own covers.  It's a process that's a lot of fun if you can come up with an image that fits the book, but frustrating if you're struggling for that clear and defining image.
            Wormwood was my first published novel and the original layout was pretty terrible (as some reviewers rightly pointed out).  Later, I learned to manipulate the image to take advantage of its strengths and conceal its weaknesses.  Blood on the Tracks has also been a difficult one.  It works well if you've read the book and understand the premise, but it doesn't attract a lot of new readers because it looks like a cheap, spiral-bound notebook.
            Duplex was no problem at all and works well for the story.  The photo was taken by my wife just outside our bedroom closet and the hand coming up through the crawlspace is mine (I took my wedding ring off for the shot).  I did three difficult covers for The Yellow Wind, then ditched them all when the final image came (with a hastily-snapped photo from my phone) while I was walking my dog.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What have you learned creating your books?

Michael James McFarland:
Oh, lots of things!  First off, the ugly fact that the market is flooded with self-published titles (many of which are poorly written, riddled with typos/formatting errors, or are just illegible nonsense thrown up to grab a few bucks).  This makes it hard to stand out without investing in advertising (again, with no promise of a return), so we really depend on honest reader reviews.
            Second, don't give away your book for free.  Set a low price and stick to it.  You may not get on as many Kindles as a free giveaway, but people are more likely to read something they've paid for, even if it's just a few bucks.  Paying for something gives it value, whereas free can be seen as worthless.
            Lastly, write and publish to please yourself.  Don't do it to become famous or get rich because chances are that's not going to happen.  In the wise words of Ray Wylie Hubbard: The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?

Michael James McFarland:
Probably some of the scenes in Seven Years, which is still going through revisions.  The book involves real people and that can be a difficult tightrope to walk, even when they go by thinly-veiled aliases.  I've sent the first draft out to my old friends who appears as characters and so far haven't heard any outrage about the way they were portrayed.  In fact, what I've heard back has been very positive, so that's a relief.  The book also deals with things that I did in my youth, which can be eye-opening to my family (past and present) and people who know me now.  I've never opened myself up like that before, and it was a difficult thing to do.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Michael James McFarland:
First of all, they're personal to me, based on my own viewpoints and experience, so that makes them unique.  "Write what you know" has always been one of the great maxims, so I've got that going for me.  Otherwise, I think my strengths are my dialogue, my descriptive style, and the immersive quality of my writing.  One thing I generally hear from new readers is "I felt like I was there!"  That's always a positive.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?

Michael James McFarland:
Like a good cover, a good title is important to attract new readers.  Once they're lured in, however, the importance of the title fades, though it should be memorable enough they can recall it to friends (or themselves, years later).  As far as choosing a title, some come with effort, perfectly formed, while others are elusive.  Fallow Ground was originally called Palouse, which I love the sound of, but no one outside of the religion knows what it means (it's the geographical area the novel takes place, and where I was born).  The truth be told, I'm still not wild about Fallow Ground as a title.  My other books - WormwoodDuplexBlood on the TracksThe Yellow Wind & Other Horrors - I love these titles, but Fallow Ground has really been a difficult child to name.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?

Michael James McFarland:
That's changed over the years.  At first, when short stories were all I could write, finishing a novel was immensely satisfying.  Now I write novels and the easy knack for short stories is something I'm losing in the process, so these days doing a short story makes me happy when I can pull it off.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.

Michael James McFarland:
My books are horror/suspense/mystery hybrids.  They are made with the purpose of putting you into an uncomfortable situation that can't be avoided; one that you have to deal with.  They contain graphic content, but not with the intent of grossing you out.  I'd rather creep you out.  I'd like to take you to places you'd rather not go in real life, force choices you'd rather not deal with, do things you'll never feel good about (even if it's the right thing to do).  Target audience would therefore be adult readers, and by that I mean of an age where they're emotionally able to take enjoyment out of the stories.  That might be 13 in some cases, where in others 35 isn't old enough!  I'd like readers to fin something personal in my stories, something that resonates with them.  I tend not to tie up my stories with neat endings because then the reader can simply close the cover and forget about it.  I want my stories to linger for a few days (or years) afterward.  I want readers thinking about what it meant or what they would have done in that situation.  It's like art, that way: you can paint a bowl of fruit or paint something abstract.  I tend to like the abstract because you can keep looking at it, discovering difficult meanings.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?

Michael James McFarland:
Deleted scenes for me tend to be things that don't contribute to the story or cause a break in mood or temp.  In Seven Years, I had a 5-page aside about shoplifting that hurt to cut, but the chapter was better for it.  I loped off the first 10 pages of Duplex because it didn't add anything to the story, it was just 10 pages of Jamie waiting to hear from her husband whether or not they were going to be moving (a la The Shining).  Why not just start with them pulling up to their new duplex in a U-Haul?

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What is in your "trunk"?  (Everyone has a book or project, which doesn't necessarily have to be book related, that they have put aside for a 'rainy day' or for when they have extra time.  Do you have one?)

Michael James McFarland:
I'd love to do an epic horror/fantasy piece about a world created by magic that begins to decay in weird and unexpected ways when it's creator dies.  I touched a little on this theme in a short story called Fade to White, but it really deserves a Clive Barker treatment: 700 pages of detail and packed with bizarre characters, all trying to make sense or come to terms with what they're experiencing.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
What can we expect from you in the future?

Michael James McFarland:
What I consider my best two (and longest) pieces of work are still unpublished.  Seven Years, which I've mentioned, is going through its second revision and will probably see a third before I'm ready to publish.  The other is called The Fold, and it's likely to be my next published novel.  Even that's at least a year away.  I've got a third novel that's finished in its longhand version, and two others that are in varying degrees of completion.  Oh, and I've got enough short stories to do another good-sized collection like I did with The Yellow Wind.  Lots of stuff on the horizon, but nothing too soon.  After putting out five books, it's time to take a breath.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Where can we find you?  (You know, STaLKeR links.)

Michael James McFarland:
You can't.  [laughs out loud]  Actually, Facebook (Michael James McFarland) is my author page) and Goodreads (same).  Goodreads allows fans to ask questions and I'm fine with anyone who wants to contact me that way.

The Gal in the Blue Mask:
Thanks, again, for stopping by Mike.  It's been great having you here.
            One more thing before you go: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you'd like to say that we didn't get to cover in this interview?

Michael James McFarland:
Just a word of thanks and gratitude.  It's strange to me that the little stories I passed around at work and at home are now being downloaded and read in other countries.  I'd like to thank you if you're one of those readers, and especially if you've taken a moment to rate or review it or even recommend it to a friend.  You are the folks that keep independent publishing alive.  Keep reading and encourage that pastime in your children!


About the author:
Michael James McFarland has been writing for over 30 years and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of formats.  Among these, 'The Hypnotist' was selected for Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (15th Annual Collection), 'The Duel' & 'Mira' were produced by Pseudopod on audio podcasts, and 'Deadline' & 'The Yellow Wind' have appeared in print anthologies.  Blood Bound Books published Fallow Ground, his first novel, in 2014.  He has self-published two well-received novels (Wormwood & Blood on the Tracks), a novella (Duplex), and a short story collection (The Yellow Wind & Other Horrors).  
            He lives and works in Washington state.

About the books:
Accepting a job in a new city, Dan Hill has just moved his wife and 4 year-old daughter into an ordinary-looking duplex.  The appliances are avocado, the carpet sea-foam green, and there's a fine layer of ash below the surface from the house that used to stand there.
            "Well that's a funny thing," the Hill's new neighbor tells Dan.  "The house caught fire and the oldest boy thought his sister was still inside.  He went in to get her, but never made it back out.  The rest of the family - the little girl included - all came through with relatively minor stuff: scrapes and bruises, smoke inhalation... It was just the one boy who died, burned up... 14 or 15 years old, I think."
            He let the story trail off, shaking his head.
            "Not the sort of thing they advertise, is it"  He leaned back into his lounge chair, considering the small border of earth around the patio.  "It's here though, if you dig.  I put in those cedars last month," he said, pointing at the small line of shrubs.  "Digging the holes I noticed a lot of ash and some burnt slivers of shingling."  He took a long sip off his beer.  "Makes you think about where you're sleeping, doesn't it?"
            Awakened by strange sounds in the dead of night, the Hills soon suspect someone is prowling about their new home, vanishing when they switch on the lights.  Little things go missing: spoons, hair ribbons, a black bra... bits of food from the refrigerator.  Frustrated, Dan sets up a video camera in hopes of capturing the intruder on tape.
            Less than a week later, his wife and daughter disappear.
            Dan retrieves the camera from its hiding spot and plays back the tape...
            What he sees turns his blood to ice.


"We strongly caution viewers that the footage about to be broadcast is of a highly graphic and unsettling nature."  The blonde anchor glanced nervously off-camera, as if there were a gun pointed at his head, then gazed back at the lens.  "I'd like to remind our audience that it has never been the policy of this station to panic or unduly alarm our viewership in bringing such events to public attention, or exploit or sensationalize any such footage we may receive. That said, the videotape we're about to present is uncensored and unedited in hopes that viewers might better prepare themselves for what is happening in the eastern portion of the country and which, by all reliable indicators, may spread our way in coming weeks.
            "This footage comes to us from our affiliate station in Chicago and was shot by W.N.C. cameraman Dennis Kabrich in the neighboring community of Elmhurst.  Once again, what you are about to witnessed and is attributed to the so-called "Wormwood" or "Yellowseed" virus, first reported near the town of Willard, Pennsylvania, just two short months ago.  This footage is of an extremely graphic nature and viewer discretion is strongly advised."
            With that, the cautions ceased and the videotape rolled.

"We need to start making plans," Rudy Cheng told his wife later in bed, nudging her out of a warm drowse.  "We need to start getting ready for this thing."
            Aimee propped herself up on an elbow.  "Rudy, Chicago is almost two thousand miles away.  They'll figure out how to stop it before it gets much further."
            He flipped himself on his back and gazed at the ceiling.  "I wish I could believe that."
            "That news report must have been something to tie you in knots like this."
            "It was.  I don't know whether to wish you'd seen it or be grateful you didn't."
            "Well you know how television can be.  They like to play things up, make them look bigger than they actually are.  What they didn't show you is how normal things are a block or two away.  You only saw what they wanted you to see."
            He nodded, thinking of the pile of bodies and the line of gunners on the roof.
            "This looked like the apocalypse."
            She laughed softly in the dark.  "People have been seeing the apocalypse for two thousand years."
            Against his closed eyelids, a dead man came shambling out of a dingy garage and disintegrated in a storm of gunfire, taking a screaming soldier with him.
            "This looked pretty convincing."
            The bedroom lapsed into silence.
            "What have you been doing all night?" she finally asked.
            "Watching the news.  Thinking about what I'll do when this thing finally shows up."
            "If this thing shows up," she amended, touching a finger to his lips.
            "If," he allowed, though not believing it.  Aside from the Chicago video, more snapshots of the epidemic were surfacing, opening up like new doors to Hell.  It didn't matter if you called it Wormwood or Yellowseed, it wasn't the sort of thing that just petered out of its own volition.  It had a maw the size of Texas and wasn't likely to stop chewing until there was nothing left but silent earth and rotting dead.
            "What sorts of plans have you been making?" Aimee asked, though hesitantly.
            "I drew a map of the neighborhood," Rudy told her.
            "That sounds harmless enough," Aimee said, relieved.
            "Maybe I'll show it to some of the neighbors tomorrow," he decided.  "See if anyone else has given this serious thought."


What begins in madness and desperation must eventually end that way.  The Taylors want nothing more than to start a family, but the couple remains childless.  A stranger, known only as Mr. Smith, arrives on their doorstep late one night with a strange proposition: safeguard a crate for the peculiar man and they'll get their offspring.  They strike a dark and irrevocable bargain.  Almost twenty-five years later, the Taylors' farmland is occupied by a new family - but the curse of the past lives on.  Does wickedness dwell in the soil itself, or does evil grow from what takes root there?


Detective Gary Murdock has been summoned to a basement recording studio to investigate the apparent suicide of rock star Sean Christopher, known to the world as Torn Embryo.  By chance or intent, the fatal gunshot has been caught on tape.  When Murdock listens to the playback, an eerie and indistinct voice can be heard in the background, casting doubt as to whether Christopher was alone when he died.  Or if his death was, indeed, a suicide...

"We've all got our personal demons, aspects of ourselves we try to hide.  I don't imagine Sean Christopher was any different in that respect." ~Gary Murdock, detective
            "You don't believe in spooks, Lieutenant.  One look at you and I can see that you don't." ~Eddie Templeton, recording engineer
            "People like that are hard to be around for long; they're too restless, too unsettled... maybe that's the reason he went through women and musicians so fast." ~Rich Gregory, jazz musician
            "I thought it was going to be the worst thing I'd see that morning; turned out I was wrong about that." ~Clayton McDougall, police officer
            "You listen to music for pleasure.  Torn Embryo wasn't made for that." ~Wes Halverson, nightclub owner

In his 2nd full-length novel, Michael James McFarland holds a fractured lens to a dark and infamous house, from its groundbreaking by lumber magnate John Bradford Condon to the sensationalized atrocities of legendary Beat poet Ian Ellison.  Through journal entries, song lyrics and police interviews, the past collides with the present and a blood-soaked form emerges, stalking the house, driving its occupants to the most unspeakable acts.


In his first collection of dark fiction, Michael James McFarland delivers fifteen tales steeped in murder, madness, and broken dreams... each different in tone, in style, yet unified by a singular talent and imagination.  All told, it's an assortment calculated to blight the dreams of the most jaded horror aficionado.
            Discover what it takes for ordinary people to survive within a world that's been left behind, forsaken, in a trio of apocalyptic tales that goes beyond bullets and the walking dead...
            Put your hand inside a magical shoebox filled with carpet scraps, tissue paper and glue; what George Watson finds, however, is a bloody knife and a skeleton out of his own past...
            Meet a writer struggling to recover the threads of a lost narrative, uncovering instead a terrible secret locked inside a derelict shopping center...
            Two souls trapped within a world of obsession and desire.  A drunken hypnotist and his disconcerting companion.  A housewife with a heart defect, desperate to lose weight...
            Lost souls.  Each struggling for a moment of peace, a chance of redemption... finding instead a horrible quicksand, a hole that only deepens as it clutches.

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