Saturday, December 19, 2009

Interview: Reade Scott Whinnem, author of The Pricker Boy

Please welcome Reade Scott Whinnem, author of The Pricker Boy. You can read my review here. As a child, Reader Scott Whinnem spent his summers in the earthquake-ridden, ghost-infested woods of East Haddam, Connecticut. From an early age, his father instilled in him a love of Star Trek, comic books, and monster movies, thereby condemning him to a life of incurable geekiness. In addition to being a writer, he is also an avid gardener, cook, and photographer. Both he and his wife are proud public school teachers. They live on Cape Cod, where they dig clams, correct essays, and ,when necessary, reassure their overweight cat that she is a devastatingly attractive female.

1. What inspired you to write The Pricker Boy?
When I was about eight, my grandparents lived in a cottage in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. The cottage was off on this little dirt road just a block away from the ocean. The yard was surrounded on three sides by undeveloped lots, and those lots were completely overgrown with thick thorn bushes.

One night while we were visiting them I had a dream that I was standing in the yard, and I looked over towards the fence where the thickest thorns grew. There was something in there, so I walked over to get a closer look. Through the fence I saw a boy hiding back in the brush under the thorns. He looked just like any other boy my age, except that his skin was grey and he was completely covered with thorns from head to toe. He started brushing the branches of the thorns out his way so that he could grab me and pull me under the bushes. I tried to run but couldn't move. I woke up screaming that the Pricker Boy was coming to get me.

It's the earliest dream I remember having, and it stuck with me. I think what fascinated me about the Pricker Boy was that apart from the thorns on his skin he seemed perfectly normal. Well, apart from the thorns and the violent derangement.

Later, when I was a teenager, I lived in a house near a lake in Connecticut. Most of the other houses in the area were seasonal cottages that were empty three seasons out of the year, but in the summertime there would be a lot of other kids around. I used to have a handful of ghost stories that I liked to tell. I had one about a white wolf who would chase people through the woods. Another was about the ghost of a homicidal hermit who lived in an abandoned house out past the reservoir.

The Pricker Boy was inspired by my childhood dream in Mattapoisett and by those teenage summers, and is dedicated to the many friends who sat around the fire listening to my stories.

2. Is there anything you have to have when you write?
I'm discovering as I get older that I am easily distractible, so getting rid of distractions is the number one thing. I've started writing in the basement lately because I can get out of my wife's hair, and also because there's no internet connection down there to sidetrack me. The internet is awful. I'll think of some factoid that I need to look up online, and the next thing I know I'll be downloading Stargate fan films and reading the Wikipedia entry on Jack Benny.

I've got a few things that I like to have around, some useful and some just fun. I have my poster for the 1931 Frankenstein. I have Roget's thesaurus. I have my Big Book of Baby Names in case I can't think up a name. I have my replica Star Trek TOS phaser that I fire at the cat. I also have a ton of instrumental music. The right music is essential to my writing.

I do, however, tend to get OCD about certain things. If I'm making notes for a book I try to use the same colored pen to write the notes down. I also color code my post-its by subplot. It's ridiculous, but if it helps to keep the ideas straight in my head then I'll keep doing it.

3. Have your students read your book? What do they think of it?
One of my students read it while it was in process, but he hasn't read the final published version yet! I'm dying to know what he thinks of the changes, but he's away at college and I won't catch up with him until Christmas.

The first student to finish the book showed up at my door during lunch the following day because she couldn't wait for our next Writers' Forum session to talk about it. She took me to task on a few things, actually. She wasn't happy with how one of the relationships evolved. She also wanted to exchange theories on one of the unanswered questions in the book, which was a lot of fun. I would love to hear people's theories on that, but to say any more would call for a spoiler alert, so I won't go on.

4. The Pricker Boy was absolutely terrifying - in a good way. Was it your intention to create such a chill-inducing book? How did you manage to make it so frightening?
One of the few writers who really frighten me is H. P. Lovecraft, and it's because he was so masterful at turning the reader's imagination against him/her. He leads you into dark places, but instead of guiding you through and explaining things along the way he slams the door and locks you inside with just enough information for your imagination to drive you insane.

I have nightmares—bad nightmares—and The Pricker Boy allowed me to explore that world of darkness that we all risk entering whenever we fall asleep. However, of the dreams that are explored in the book, I find the first one to be the least frightening, mainly because it's the easiest one to explain away. It's logical, given what happened to him on his fourth grade field trip, that Stucks has nightmares about being kidnapped by a demon. To me, it's the dreams that come later, the ones that are more suggestive and have more room for interpretation, that are really scary. In fact, it was Stucks' "unfinished room" nightmare towards the end of the book that gave me shudders every time I passed it in the rewrite, because the reader's imagination has real wiggle room in there, and it's not a nice place to be wiggling around in.

I try to write books that keep the pages turning. My friends would say that I'm a terrible tease, which is probably true, and writing a suspenseful story is a way to tease people and entertain them at the same time.

5. In my review I said that your book was a "modern-day version of The Lord of the Flies." Thoughts?
High praise indeed! While the premise of Lord of the Flies is 'a group of boys crash lands on a deserted island,' the real story is how their darker selves emerge in the absence of authority. The Pricker Boy's premise is 'a monster from the woods threatens a group of young people.' The real story digs much deeper than that, but I'll leave it to the reader to decide which of the stories is more unsettling.

I can see where you could see a similarity. As Stucks says of Pete in chapter nine, "Again he goes silent. He's studying me. Studying me the way you'd study an anthill before kicking it. Studying me the way you'd study the ants afterward to see how they'd react."

Thank you for the comparison; it’s very flattering.

6. Are you working on anything right now? If so, could you tell us a little something about it?
I'm working on a couple of things right now. I've always wanted to write a road book, and I have a first draft of a manuscript. Actually, to call it a first draft is a bit of an exaggeration. It needs a lot of work. But I can tell you that it's the story of two high school students who set off one summer to find a friend who has disappeared. It's not as spooky as The Pricker Boy, but I think that it will be just as scary. The "monster" in this book is no ghost, and his threat is much rawer. The story is still in the early stages, so I won't say more. If the process of writing it is anything like writing The Pricker Boy was, the final manuscript will be quite different from this first draft.

Thank you so much for joining us Reade!

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