markgunnells (markgunnells) wrote,

Interview with Author Joseph Mulak

Joseph Mulak is a talented storyteller and a hell of a cool guy. I was thrilled when he stopped by the blog to chat with me.

MAG: Were you a reader from an early age?

JM: Definitely! If my mother is to be believed (but she tends to exaggerate at times) I taught myself to read. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I do remember reading a lot as a kid. I started out with these Sesame Street books we had in the basement of the house I grew up in. I would sit down there for hours sometimes reading through them. I must have read those books at least ten times each. A few years later, my uncle had given my brother a bunch of Hardy Boys books. My brother never read them, so I did. I read of each of them two or three times. I was eight or nine at the time. I also remember reading a lot of Archie comics back then as well. There was a used bookstore my mother would take me to and I would buy a bunch of them at a time. I had a stack about three feet tall in my room.

MAG: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, what can you tell us about it?

JM: I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember my first attempt at writing was a copy of the Hardy Boys. I was probably ten at the time. I tried to write my own series called The Farley Boys. The first, and only, attempt at this was about the boys and their parents moving into a new house and someone kept breaking in. The police couldn’t figure out who was doing it or how the culprit was even getting into the house, so the boys took it upon themselves to investigate. They discover a trapdoor in the house and, as it turns out, the culprit had been living under the house the whole time. Being ten years old, the whole story was about a page long with no paragraph breaks or dialogue. It’s kind of embarrassing to think about now.

MAG: Who were some of the storytellers who influenced you?

JM: There are so many. I think every book I read influences me in some ways, even if it’s a bad book. You can learn a lot about how not to write a book from the novels that you don’t like.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen King. Even though I haven’t read any of his books since the 90s, he was the first writer I read that made me consider becoming an author. What I consider to be my first real attempt at writing a novel was a rip-off of The Dead Zone, which was the first of King’s books I read. It was called My Prison and, while the plot was my own, the concept was very similar to the Dead Zone.

I was also very influenced by a lot of the books that were part of our high-school curriculum at the time, though not until later. I hated the books in high-school, though I realized later it wasn’t the books I hated. It was having to dissect them for essays and oral presentations. I re-read books like Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. I hated the books then, but after re-reading them when I was older, they became and remain two of my favourite books.

I was also heavily influenced by Dickens. I still love his work and I just bought a set of his books. It has that old, antique look to them and they’re on the top shelf of my bookshelf now.

Other authors who influenced me around this time were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Herman Melville, Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edward Albee, Ramsey Campbell, Douglas Clegg, Frank DeFellita, Clive Barker, and Dean Koontz.

Lately, the writers who have been influencing me are Nick Hornby, Matthew Norman, Jonathan Evison, Mike Gayle, Douglas Coupland, Terry Fallis, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, Irvine Welsh, John Irving, Tom Perrotta, Jonathan Tropper, Matt Cohen, David Adams Richards, and Mark Haddon.

I’m a bit all over the place with my reading.

MAG: What was your first published work?

JM: My first published work was a short story called “As in Life, So in Death,” published in SNM Horror Mag in 2009. It actually came from a joke on Twitter. I found out the ezine was looking for zombie stories. They put out monthly theme issues. So I posted on Twitter that I was looking for an original premise for a zombie story. Another author, Bryan Smith, responded with the idea of a guy going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and eating so much he dies, but when he comes back as a zombie, he’s too full to eat anyone. I dismissed the idea as ridiculous, which I’m pretty sure was Bryan’s intention, but the idea stayed with me and I figured I could turn it into a comedy. I didn’t quite use Bryan’s premise. The story was about a guy whose dad died and came back as a zombie and went back to his regular routine. He would go to work then come home and sit in front of the TV. I was proud of the story at the time, but I read it again a couple of years ago and was more embarrassed than anything. I love the concept but I didn’t execute it very well back then.

MAG: What can you tell us about the character of Ivan in Flushed? Readers really seem to have responded positively to him. How did he develop?

JM: Ivan was born from two things. My love of Dostoevsky and my hatred of gambling. Astute readers will recognize the main catalyst of the events in Flushed are very similar to the plot of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. I had read it around that time and was definitely influenced by it. But the story quickly deviates from Dostoevsky’s original premise and becomes something else entirely. So, while the book was influenced by The Gambler, I wouldn’t say it’s a rip-off.

I don’t know where Ivan himself came from. When I started the book, the opening scene was Ivan talking about all the tricks casinos use to keep people inside, spending money. I removed those opening paragraphs for two reasons: 1. I wanted to get right to the action and 2. They came off as me going on a rant about why casinos are evil, which isn’t what I wanted. Yes, the book was originally inspired by my own personal dislike of gambling, but I didn’t want the book to come off as preachy. I don’t care if other people gamble. It’s just not for me.

So, while I was writing the opening scene, I tried to imagine who the narrator would be. It was obviously someone who spent a lot of time in the city’s local casino and I got the idea of someone who made their living playing poker with tourists at the poker tables. Then I had to wonder what kind of person would do that and the answer I came up with is it had to be someone who has never really had to think about other people. Ivan is lazy, irresponsible, and selfish. He only cares about himself. Which isn’t unlike myself when I was in my mid-twenties. So then I wondered what would happen if this person suddenly had to take someone else into consideration and had all these responsibilities thrust on him all at once, and that’s how the concept came to be.

MAG: Ashes to Ashes is your unique take on the zombie subgenre. What drew you to this story, and did you consider it a challenge to put your own stamp on the zombie?

JM: I never intended to write a zombie novel. The opening scene of the book involves one of the main characters, Todd, on his way to kill himself by jumping off an overpass. I was diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of twenty-six and I was going through a hard time mentally and emotionally when I started the book. That opening scene was born out of a particularly tough bout of depression. I just sat down to write and that’s what came out.

One thing I’ve noticed is when I’m depressed, I tend to write more comedic stories. Making myself laugh helps to pull me out of it. So I tried to do that with this story. As Todd is about to jump, there’s another guy who already jumped and is still alive and they start a conversation.

So of course, I’ve got this guy who’s jumped off an overpass and is in rough shape and there’s no way he survived this, so I needed a reason why he was still alive. The obvious answer was zombies. But I didn’t want to write just another zombie story. So I created the character of Mitch, Todd’s older brother. Todd is a failed musician, divorced, and is estranged from his kids. Mitch is a successful doctor, happily married, and his wife are expecting their first child. They hate each other but end up having to fight through the zombie apocalypse to get themselves and their loved ones to safety.

The one thing I wanted to make sure of, was that I had an original idea for how the dead are being reanimated. I wanted some kind of scientific explanation for that, which is how I came up with the drug “ash.” I won’t go into too many details about it, since I don’t want to spoil it, but the drug is the main catalyst for the zombie uprising in the book and I managed to create a scientific reason behind it all. Having said that, science isn't exactly my forte and people who are actual scientists may read and think I have no idea what I’m talking about. And they’d be right. But I was pretty proud of the premise when I thought of it. Also, the way I have it set up, shooting the zombies in the head actually make things worse for the protagonists, so they have to be a bit more creative.

All that to say, I don’t see Ashes to Ashes as a zombie book. It’s a story of two brothers trying to work out their differences with zombies as the backdrop. It’s the most autobiographical story I’ve written since the relationship between the two brothers is inspired by my relationship with my own brother. While Todd and Mitch and aren’t necessarily based on my brother and me, there are a lot of similarities.

MAG: What are you working on now, and where do you see your writing going in the future?

JM: I just started a new book. The tentative title is Other People’s Music. It’s about a guy named Andy who makes a living playing in various cover bands to make a living, but his dream is to start writing and recording his own music. Andy comes from a long line of professional musicians and his father was a famous blues guitarist who just vanished one day and no one knows what happened to him. When Andy’s teenaged daughter comes to stay with him for a while, she convinces him to seek out his father to find out where he went and why he quit playing music.

As for where my writing is going: Even though 99% of my published work is in the horror genre, I find my current work is moving away from that. Not that I have anything against the genre. It’s just that most of the ideas I’m passionate about right now fall into other categories. After the current book, I have three more ideas that all fall into comedy/drama more than anything else. I’m not saying I’ll never return to writing horror, but I won’t be for the foreseeable future at least.

A big thank you to Joseph for stopping by. You can check out his stuff here:

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