The author of Gwendy’s Button Box, A Long December, and Midnight Promises sits down with GH editor Joshua Demarest to talk about writing, editing, the future of the genre, and the success of Cemetery Dance Publications.
Richard Chizmar is the founder/publisher of Cemetery Dance magazine and the Cemetery Dance Publications book imprint. He has edited more than 30 anthologies and his fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. He has won two World Fantasy awards, four International Horror Guild awards, and the HWA’s Board of Trustee’s award.
In my experience, humility is the rarest trait found in the world of professional writers. But Richard Chizmar has it in spades.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of sitting down with the author, editor, and publisher to talk about his work, his experience, and his vision of the future of our genre.
What I got was much more. Chizmar impressed me with his professionalism, sense of humor, willingness to mentor and foster my vision for Gallows Hill, and his candor.
Perhaps this graciousness is part of what helped him start one of the most successful horror imprints of all time, Cemetery Dance. But it is his passion for the genre that allowed him to keep it growing for nearly thirty years.
“It’s never been something I did to try to make a buck or win any kind of acclaim,” said Chizmar, laughing at the idea.
The real key to his success in the industry, he claims, is a dedication to publishing content that he loves, regardless of the current trends and fads.
“We’ve never followed any path,” he said. “We’ve never looked to be trailblazers or to lead the way on this or that, or come out ahead of whatever the next trend is going to be. We’ve just always published what we like and built strong relationships with writers through the magazine and the book line.”
That writer-first mentality has made Cemetery Dance a haven for horror writers big and small, including the legendary Stephen King.
In fact, his relationship with King has grown so strong that the pair teamed up on Gwendy’s Button Box, and King even made a guest appearance in Chizmar’s son’s new film Gone.
Chizmar’s writing style, which features characters seemingly pulled from your neighborhood and quick, no-nonsense pacing, has been frequently compared to that of King.
True to form, Chizmar accepts the praise with the utmost humility.
“It makes me feel bad for him, because he’s so much of a better writer than me,” he joked. “But obviously for someone like me, who grew up reading Steve and can point at Steve as an absolute primary reason why I write, and publish, and edit, it’s a really cool comparison.”
The recent publication with King has led to an influx of new readers to Chizmar’s work. The next step for them is frequently Chizmar’s masterful short story collection A Long December.
This collection of 35 short stories is a veritable masterclass in the short form. It spans genres, but remains cohesive because of the amount of detail Chizmar puts into his characters. He also has a penchant for the sudden, shocking ending.
“I’ve heard from a handful of people who have said ‘the stories could have kept going,’ or ‘some of the stories left me hanging,’ and to that, I just kind of have to smile and say ‘that’s what a good story’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you think.’”
And to what does he credit his uncanny ability to end a story exactly when it should end?
“Totally happy accidents,” he confided during the interview. “I wish I could say it’s this or that, it’s because I learned this, or because I employ this technique, but that’s not the case. I admit to a lot of happy accidents, and a lot of times it comes down to gut and instinct and I just know the story’s done. I know that I haven’t always answered all the questions.”
So why does he often cut the story off before he’s tied up all of the loose ends?
“I think that the reader’s imagination of what comes next is ten times as impactful as any one more sentence, one more paragraph, or one more page that I could have written.”
Of course, for Chizmar, as for so many writers out there, writing isn’t always easy.
“One of the positives about my job is that every day is different; there’s not a lot of boring repetition, and every day brings a new challenge, which is wonderful, except when you’re trying to plan out writing time.
“That’s something I’ve learned over the years: you just have to squeeze in a page, or a half-page whenever you can. But for me, that’s kind of Kryptonite because I do better with a regular schedule.”
Chizmar has also never shied away from writing about topics that mean a lot to him personally.
“I’ve written about cancer, but that was actually a pretty positive experience for me.
“There’s a story called The Silence of Sorrow that is about a father cleaning up after his son and entire family die in a car accident, and that entire story was very difficult. Between not just what he found hidden among his belongings that led him to see that there was another side to his son, which was not the side that everyone knew and loved, but also just cleaning up after the dead, as I mentioned in the story notes of that one, is something that I’ve personally been through with someone who was very close to me, so that certainly brought back a lot of memories, and it wasn’t quite as therapeutic as writing about cancer for me. So that entire story was pretty hard.”
These personal details and emotions are part of what make Chizmar such an effective writer.
In fact, throughout all of the stories in A Long December, Chizmar sprinkled details from his childhood, though he didn’t realize what he was doing until he went back and compiled them all together.
“I just wrote the stories when they occurred to me,” he explained to me. “But when it came time to write the story notes [in A Long December], all of the patterns started to appear to me.
“I never realized it. I never realized that they were set on streets named after where I grew up, or lined with willow trees.”
Countless reviews of his writing have said that this is what makes these stories so chilling—the fact that they could very well take place on your street.
And it’s true. Chizmar possesses a Shirley Jackson-esque flair for creating a real character on the page, complete with an entire lifetime of history and personality ticks, in no more than a few thousand words.
Unfortunately, my chat with Chizmar had to come to an end. But before he left, I asked him what he thought was the next big thing in horror. He simply chuckled.
“Cemetery Dance is going to continue what it’s always done. If you like it, it’s a great place to come along for the ride, because you’re going to get the type of fiction and non-fiction that you enjoy. But if you’re coming along for the ride because you want to see us transform into something else eventually, that’s probably not going to happen.”
So what’s in the future for Cemetery Dance?
“Try to get better, which we do every day.”
Here’s to 30 more years on top, Rich.
As with all author interviews, we asked Rich for a book recommendation. His answer:
During the interview, I also sprung an impromptu game of Word Associations on Rich. Here were his (very telling) answers: