Last week, I interviewed Ross Smeltzer, author of The Mark of the Shadow Grove, about himself and his writing technique. I wanted to follow up the interview with a second set of questions that offered a bit more insight into the book itself. After all, it was the book that drew me to
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How did you like working with Fantasy Works Publishing? Was it fun or nerve wracking to work with a brand new publisher?
I was glad I worked with a brand-new publisher actually. The Fantasy Works team allowed me to have a lot of input into the book, even when it was ostensibly out of my hands. What I most appreciated about the whole process was that I was able to be an active participant in a process most authors don’t ever get to contribute to: cover design.
You grew up in Chatham, NY, surrounded by “overgrown woodlands and tumbled-down derelict farmhouses” – did you use this for inspiration for your novel? The imagery of Kinderhook – and particularly the pumpkins – stayed with me days after I finished the novel.
Much of my writing is set in Upstate New York and the adjacent woodlands of Western Massachusetts. I spent too many hours during my adolescence wandering in the woods around my house and I have intense memories of those places. I can recall, instinctively, what the trees there look like in winter, all bare and black and skeletal, or what the crumpled, dead leaves on the forest floor smell like after an October rain. I wanted to imbue my novellas with those sensations, to thrust readers into an environment I know intimately.
Your tale weaves through the lives of several generations of the Schermerhorn family and those who are destroyed by them. How long did it take you to decide on the structure of your story and to decide which character’s to use for POV?
The idea for the collection—which I now think is more like a novel in three parts than a trio of linked novellas—emerged fairly quickly. It came to me while I was jogging. After writing the first section of the book and getting positive feedback from my publisher about it, I was faced with the decision to either expand on the story it contained or write two other independent stories. I decided to compromise between those two alternatives and to create two stories that could stand on their own, but that would gain resonance by building on the narrative in the first novella.
I think that decision was dictated by my desire to fashion a claustrophobic parallel universe, akin to Lovecraft’s fabled Miskatonic County.
I wish I could say I made strategic choices about the points of view I’d use in the various novellas, but that would be a lie. Those choices emerged spontaneously, mostly by happy accident.
Do you have a favorite character from your book? If so, why do you like them best?
Alice, from the second novella is my favorite character in the book. She’s a tough-minded, unsentimental sort of person. There’s a hardness about her that I find very intriguing.
The story takes place in the 1800s and early 1900s – what challenges did that present to you as the writer? Do you fear anachronisms being pointed out to you as the book grows in popularity?
I would never claim my book is a work of historical fiction. I researched New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries extensively before I set about writing the book, but I am certain it’s riddled with anachronisms and errors. In my defense, if you are looking for unimpeachable historical scholarship, you probably should look elsewhere. After all, my book prominently features fictitious religions, witches, and demons drawn from the nether-reaches of space and time. To call my book a work of historical fiction would be a bit like calling Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” a detailed treatment of cultic practices in the Roman imperial period.
I could never tell if the females in your story were heroes or anti-heroes. To me, it felt as if they were who they were by reasons of descent and circumstances and you, the author, did not say if they were good or evil. Is that a fair take or am I way off base?
I strove to make the women at the center of my book quite ambiguous. I wanted the reader to be unsure if they are villains or misguided heroes, or both. Personally, I don’t think they are either. They’re just as morally-confused and psychologically-muddled as the rest of us, and they are liable to make mistakes. Sometimes very big ones.
Mythology definitely plays a role in this novel. Do you have a background in classics/mythology? What kind of research went into developing your story?
I don’t have an academic background in mythology, although I’m quite interested in folklore and folk practices. For some reason, I need to ground the improbable circumstances in my writings to some kind of existing folkloric or mythic belief system. I like the tangibility it lends to my multifarious, tentacled horrors.
The reviews on Goodreads, thus far, all mention your unique writing style – elevated vocabulary and rich imagery are frequently mentioned. Is this your general writing style or one you’ve adopted for this novel?
I like reading evocative, sensual writing, and I think I’m committed to writing the sort of fiction I, myself, enjoy reading. I’m an absolute Margaret Atwood nut; her prose is just a sensory overload—brimful of fish-eyes and brain-shaped fungi. When I began reading her work I felt reassured about my literary proclivities.
Which part of the novel was the most difficult for you to write, and why?
I think the opening novella was the most difficult for me to write. When I began it, I didn’t quite expect my basic premise would evolve in the ways it eventually did. I was frankly surprised by its growth and evolution.
For the aspiring authors out there – do you have any advice on writing, getting published, or dealing with reviews?
If I were to offer any advice to aspiring writers it would be this: you need to get writing and stay at it. You’ll gain nothing by waiting for some notional, hypothetical perfect story to materialize or for your talents to fully coalesce. You just need to open a Microsoft Word document and start banging away at the keyboard.