Snipe Hunting With City Slickers on the Appalachian Trail: An Interview with Scott Nicholson

Every so often a genre writer comes along whose work just jumps out at me. Greg Bear is one, Neil Gaiman is one. Scott Nicholson is another. I was born in Appalachia and lived a decent amount of my life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, so Scott's work is near and dear to my heart. Growing up there, ghost stories were an almost nightly entertainment. My grandmother loved to spin a good yarn. Living in the mountains of North Carolina, Scott too, is a product of that environment. He's the author of the Appalachian Gothic thrillers The Harvest, The Red Church, The Manor, The Home and his latest thriller, The Farm. Proceed onward for a vivid snapshot into the life of a unique talent.

ML: I love how you incorporate many elements of Mountain, Native American and Southern folklore into your novels. What is your primary inspiration to write and why horror novels sat in Appalachia?

SN: Like you, Michael, my nascent storytelling experiences came at the runners of my grandmother's rocker. My fondest childhood memories are of visiting her farm and gathering on the porch as dusk settled. The tales were made even more vivid because they seemed not only entirely plausible; they transcended their era and became timeless. Huge mountain lions, ghosts, black forests, bottomless caves, and eerie occurrences populated those stories, and I'll carry them in my heart forever. Since I live here, it's easy to talk about "my" people and our legends. If politically correct outsiders want to call it stereotyping when I use trailer trash, rednecks, moonshiners, and defective preachers as characters, so be it. The truth is, those aren't stereotypes. Those are my relatives.

My novels The Farm, The Red Church and The Manor were inspired by allegedly haunted sites within eight miles of my house. The Harvest was the proverbial "what if" set in my own back yard. I love the rhythms of mountain dialect and the largely rural and agricultural lifestyle. I don't have a TV, but I have a nice window and deck. I could write a hundred novels without ever leaving this mountain. The Home was inspired by a child's death at a nearby group home for troubled children."

ML: Does the muse ever surprise you in unpleasant ways? In other words, are you one of those people that have pen and pad scattered about the house, car and bathroom because you must be prepared for those moments when you are suddenly struck by the muse? Have any amusing stories to tell?

SN: I don't keep scraps and I don't write in my head, though I sometimes hoard research that I might use later. I don't have much patience with muses, being a lapsed control freak. That said, a weird synchronicity always occurs with whatever novel I'm working on, where real encounters or incidents drop dialogue, characters, and names into my lap just when I need them most.

I write much better when I'm not really paying attention, when I'm slamming out words without knowing what I'm doing. Don't tell my editor, but I've never written an outline in my life, at least not until the novel's finished and it's time to get some of the advance. Sometimes I'll laugh out loud, and very occasionally get frightened by what I'm writing, but when I'm hitting the really good stuff, my gut is clenched and aching and I'm hunched over the keyboard and the world could end without my noticing or caring. I have all the appropriate psychological defects it takes to be a writer, if not necessarily the talent.

ML: You studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State University, did you find those courses particularly useful for novel writing? What I am getting at is that many academic writers shun genre fiction and consider it second rate (I personally have waged many wars against this mindset within the academic establishment).

SN: I was always the worst one in my college classes, writing the way-out stuff. UNC was a bit stodgy, but ASU has a surprisingly diverse program, bringing in visiting writers from all genres. It was there that one teacher planted the idea that writing must be a daily ritual, and he wrote on one of my stories, "You write with feeling. I say go for it." Shortly after that, I did. I'll be going for it the rest of my life, but I'm having a blast trying even if I never get it right.

College isn't necessary for writers and may even be a hindrance. Living, or at least surviving, is the best preparation. Genre fiction can be second-rate in the hands of a dispassionate soul, but then, there's a ton of awful literary fiction, too. I've always been more interested in the emotional effect of a story, or of any piece of art, than in the technique. Of course, with the best stuff, the technique is invisible. Two words: Stephen King.

ML: Within the horror genre whose work first influenced you to write and whose writing do you still find the most fascinating now and why?

SN: I believe King probably was, though most of my formative reading was Hemingway, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, and Brautigan. The Exorcist is the first horror novel I ever read, or maybe The Sentinel, so that religious stuff always strikes a deep chord in me. The Haunting of Hill House is my genre favorite. Lately I'd say I've read more Dean Koontz than anyone else. I think he's a master of the craft and takes such obvious care with his work. What's funny is I never set out to write horror and never really followed the genre that closely. I just started typing and that's what happened.

ML: What writer from outside the horror genre do you find the most fascinating and why?

SN: William Goldman, though he dipped his toe into psychological horror with "Magic." He now writes strictly screenplays, but I've been fascinated by everything he does, whether it's a script, novel, short story, or non-fiction. Like King's, Goldman's writing seems effortless, though of course the opposite is true. Hard writing makes easy reading. Ira Levin is another favorite. He's scattered across several genres and makes them his own.

ML: The setting for one of your novels was a famous haunted house that has recently been confirmed by ghost hunters as poltergeist active. Do you have any personal ghost stories to tell?

SN: I did a short documentary video on the church that inspired The Red Church. The priest gave me access to the church and left me there alone with darkness falling. Every creak of ancient wood seemed amplified. I'm a skeptic, but I didn't stick around too long. A paranormal investigator told me the real-life "Manor" revealed some orbs in photos he took, so we're trying to get permission for a formal investigation. I'll be the doubting Thomas in the crowd, but I'll keep a tight grip on my flashlight and drum up an Appalachian warding spell or two just in case.

ML: Your website is chockablock full of advice to writers and folklore information. Is there any additional parting wisdom that you would like to give to the readers about writing or life in general?

SN: I don't know anything, I just make it up as I go along. I was thinking about this today, about how some writers say you have to treat writing like a job. To me, it's more important than any mere job could ever be. This is my life.

Thanks Scott for taking the time to answer a few questions. For further information on Scott Nicholson go to his website: http://www.hauntedcomputer.com/

Make sure to check out his articles page. That alone will keep you entertained for hours. When next we check in with Scott we'll be hiking up the Ottochoechee Pass in search of the legendary fanged, whipbelly bullfrog of the Pisgah National Forest.

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Michael Lohr is a professional journalist, outdoorsman, poet, whiskey connoisseur, music critic, treasure hunter and adventurer. His writing has appeared in such diverse magazines as Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Economist, Southern Living, Sporting News and Men's Journal, to name a few. And now, the Dragon Page is happily added to that list.