The 35 Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County is a brilliant supernatural historical thriller, which I recently had the pleasure of reviewing (see here: https://bit.ly/2IcpUw7). I asked the author, Mason Ball, for a Q&A for my blog so that I (and fellow writers who read my blog) might glean some of his writerly magic. So without any further ado, over to you Mason:
Where did you get the idea behind 35 Deaths?
The initial idea came many, many years ago in my early teens. I was in my local library and saw a collection of horror stories, the cover of which was a monster breaking free from a wall of ice. The idea prompted by this image floundered for decades and was all but forgotten, but when in my thirties my wife bought Doctor Bischoffberger’s medical record from eBay, as I read through it, parts of that old idea came back to me and 35 Deaths, though completely unrecognisable from that initial idea, began to take shape in my mind.
Your novel has a tremendous sense of time and place, how did you achieve that?
I think one of the things that helped was purchasing a book of old photographs of the area, seeing the clothes they wore, the streets they walked, and just trying to think myself into the era. The more I did so, the more it felt like really not so long ago or quite so alien.
I think something that’s important to acknowledge is that while a certain amount of accuracy in setting is important, what I was doing wasn’t painting a picture of 1930s Maine to the exact historical detail, but a picture of my Maine, as much I was painting a picture of my Dr Bischoffberger; both versions crafted to fit my means and to serve my purpose.
I can only describe 35 Deaths as a brilliant historical/supernatural/crime thriller. What made you want to tell the story that way and have you always been attracted to stories that crossover genre in that way?
I think to a large extent genre exists for salesmen, not writers. The idea really decided the form that the book would take. Once I’d settled on the idea, the dual narrative structure, together with the chapter introductions by Joseph, things were set in motion and it was going to be what it was going to be.
How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?
I think if I knew the answer to the first question that I’d get more ideas. Anything can trigger an idea, but you get that idea, or a concept in your mind, maybe a scene, a way perhaps of doing something differently or from an angle or perspective you’ve not read before, and things start to grow. For a long time nothing is written bar the barest of notes, and it exists only in my head: the set-up, perhaps a few characters, a scene or two. Then if you’re lucky, it grows. A strong first line is always good to get you off and running too.
Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
Due to its unfamiliar historical and geographical settings, in writing 35 Deaths I embarked on far more research than for anything else I’ve ever written.
Finding a book called Now I Will Tell You… The Story of Naples, Maine, Its History and Legends compiled by Robert Jordan Dingley for the Naples Historical Society was a gold mine of information and minutiae: anecdotes, names, incidents etc. that I imagine exist nowhere else. True details from Now I Will Tell You… are peppered throughout the novel, my favourite of which is probably the story of the Chinese idols (the book even has photographs on them!).
I did a little digging into John M. Bischoffberger, however, as stated above, only in so much as it served the novel.
Geographically speaking, the internet, most importantly period maps I found online, and Google Earth were invaluable, helping me place towns and areas, lakes and waterways, their locality and whereabouts in relation to one another.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’d say by nature I’m definitely more of a pantser. I once tried to novelise a theatrical show I’d written and directed but because I knew exactly where it was headed, my interest and enthusiasm soon waned, and the project stalled.
Once I have an idea, I usually have a vague notion of where the piece I’m writing is going, which of course grows stronger as I go, and usually at a certain point an ending or resolution begins to make itself known (which of course can mean a rewrite of earlier passages); but never do I know every plotted point ahead of time. I like to surprise myself as I go and give the opportunity to improvise.
However, as much of 35 Deaths was preordained for me, i.e. the order and nature of the deaths themselves all there in black and white in Biscoffberger’s medical record, I found myself ‘pantsing’ around the plotted elements proscribed by the concept of the novel itself.
How do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents?
If any wild tangents don’t serve the original idea, then I steer my way back to the path. But of course, if any tangents suggest a new idea better than the original then I’m happy to go exploring, making sure to keep an eye out so the tangent doesn’t become an end in of itself.
Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
In a sense I do, or almost full-time. However much of the time what I’m writing is for my other job, which is in cabaret. As well as hosting other shows, as Benjamin Louche, I co-produce and host a monthly cabaret show The Double R Club, inspired by the work of David Lynch. For each act I write 200 words, often including poems and or stories; the second compendium including material written for The Double R Club, Further Voices In The Red Velvet Elsewhere will be published later in the year.
When is your most productive period of the day?
I’d say usually early afternoon, post lunch. I am not a morning person.
Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people?
I’m a writer who believes that all art is, at least in some way, autobiographical. I think bits and pieces of the artist are all over his or her work, just not necessarily in any cogent or easily definable way; I’m not sure it can be helped.
I like to use the analogy penned by another writer (I think it was Stephen King but forgive me if I’ve misremembered), to paraphrase:
Writing is like a game of handball. When the ball strikes your hand, that’s you, autobiography. When the ball hits the wall, that fiction, utterly invented. But of course, for the majority of the time the ball isn’t in your hand or on the wall, for the majority of the time the ball is in the air.
I have in the past started to write characters based on real people, but they never stay true to the person they’re based on, I find they twist and change, becoming their own thing, again, proscribed the idea itself and the world it creates.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a ‘spiritual sequel’ to my 2015 fairy tale The Menagerie, which is similarly dark and strange in tone, and which mirrors to some extent the former’s structure and format but is otherwise unrelated and involves a whole new setting and cast of characters. It’s entitled Princess Of The Asperous Reach.
Unbound is a unique and new publishing novel. How did you find the process of crowdfunding your book?
Daunting and a hard slog. Convincing people that they were pre-buying a book and not simply giving a feckless writer some of their hard-earned money for no good reason could be a struggle; the concept of crowdfunded publishing is new and tricky for some to grasp. Was the book even finished?Were they simply funding me to sit around all day drinking tea and writing?No and no!
Ultimately it was a rewarding experience though and I am incredibly proud of the finished book.
How has your experience with Unbound contrasted with that of publishing your previous books?
Before Unbound I had only self-published shorter works and any longer form pieces, despite my best efforts, had remained rejected by agents and publishers, and unpublished.
So, the experience of Unbound could not have been more different. The simple fact of Unbound selecting for their site, and being supportive of, my novel was incredibly heartening.
Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Edit without mercy.
Give me some advice about writing?