Richard Chizmar is an author, editor, teacher, and publisher. He founded Cemetery Dance magazine as well as the publishing house of the same name, which is home to such venerable authors as Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Dean Koontz, and many more. His short 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. Chizmar’s work has been translated into more than fifteen languages throughout the world, and he has appeared at numerous conferences as a writing instructor, guest speaker, panelist, and guest of honor. He sat down with us to answer a few questions and talk about Cemetery Dance, true crime, and his latest novel, Chasing the Boogeyman.
Janelle Janson: Hello Rich, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. Before we get into your career, can you please briefly tell us about yourself and your family?
Richard Chizmar: I’m pretty much a genre dinosaur in my mid-fifties, married to Kara, father to Billy and Noah, living in Bel Air, Maryland with four happy dogs, about a half-hour north of Baltimore.
JJ: When did you start your publishing company, Cemetery Dance? Did you know it would take off like it did? Do you remember the first book you published?
RC: The first issue was published in December 1988 when I was a senior in college, but I started reading submissions and promoting the magazine earlier that summer. I had no idea at the time if we would survive a year or a decade. It didn’t really matter. I just kept my head down and focused on the work on my desk. The first book we published – three years later – was an extraordinary collection of crime and suspense fiction by Ed Gorman. It was called Prisoners and Other Stories. Dean Koontz wrote the afterword.
JJ: How did it come to you to start a publishing house? Was it your love of horror?
RC: It was a combination of things. I loved horror, no question. I was writing and submitting a lot of horror short stories back then to small press publications. I was fortunate enough to sell quite a few of them, but months later when the contributor copies showed up in my mailbox, I was often disappointed in the quality of the magazines. Between that and learning that Dave Silva produced The Horror Show as pretty much a one-man show in the wilderness of northern California, I decided to give it a try myself. I was just young and naïve enough at the time to think it might work.
JJ: Are you a book collector yourself? Any gems in your collection?
RC: I’m a collector of sorts, but I wouldn’t say I’m fanatical about it. I have a lot of signed limited editions and first editions in my library, but also hundreds of tattered paperbacks and periodicals. My most prized books are the ones that are personally inscribed by friends I’ve made over the past 35 years.
JJ: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
RC: I was very young when I began writing my first short stories – probably eight or nine years old – and I knew right away that it was something special. Not the stories themselves – those were usually one-note monster or war stories that I gave to my mother to read – but the actual process of writing. Sitting at the small desk in my bedroom and creating imaginary worlds and characters felt “right” from the very beginning.
JJ: What was the first story you ever wrote?
RC: An illustrated story about a haunted snowman. I still have a copy of it.
JJ: You’ve done quite a bit of collaborative work. Do you prefer to collaborate with other writers?
RC: I wouldn’t say I prefer it, but I’ve done it fairly often and been fortunate enough to have enjoyed it each and every time. I’d say that fact is undeniably due to the fine list of writers I’ve written alongside. Collaborating, when it’s working well, is like playing a game of ping-pong with a manuscript. You take your best whack at the story and send it back over the net to your partner. Before long, it comes back your way and it’s time to work again.
JJ: The Cemetery Dance anthologies are legendary, and I assume that is in large part due to you as an editor. What is your favorite anthology series?
RC: The Best of Cemetery Dance is arguably the finest quality because it pulls the very best stories from the life of the magazine. The Shivers series is ongoing and a lot of fun, and we’ve published some real gems between those covers. But, for my money, the October Dreams anthologies are my favorites. I love Halloween and to me those two books are unabashed celebrations of the holiday.
JJ: Is editing more or less of a passion of yours than writing?
RC: Less. I enjoy editing other writers’ work – that process comes with its own unique set of challenges – but creating my own stories is my true passion.
JJ: Do you have to be a fan of the writers you publish? Did you discover new favorite authors along the way? If so, who?
RC: You don’t have to be, but it helps. I’ve learned over the past three decades that life is too short to work with people you’re not very fond of. That’s one of the nice things about running an independent press: no boss looking over your shoulder forcing you to expend bad energy. We published a lot of popular authors before they became well known in the genre. Folks like Norman Partridge, Gary Braunbeck, and Ronald Kelly.
JJ: How did you come to sign on Stephen King? Was it a lengthy process or did it happen quickly/by chance?
RC: Steve surprised me by sending the short story “Chattery Teeth” way back in 1991 to publish in Cemetery Dance. After that, we worked together on a pretty regular basis, whether it was my publishing stories of his in various anthologies or CD publishing his novels in limited edition format. I believe the first book, From a Buick 8, was right around 2001 or so.
JJ: Did you enjoy writing a story that takes place in King’s Castle Rock? Did it transform your writing?
RC: It was a dream come true. Intimidating at first, but a real joy from start to finish. I’m honestly not sure if it transformed my writing. The entire experience felt like a blur and was over before I knew it. Some days I’m still not sure it actually happened.
JJ: Do you have plans to collaborate with Stephen King again in the future?
RC: We recently finished the third book in the Gwendy trilogy, Gwendy’s Final Task. Unlike the first two books, this one’s a full length novel and will be out in hardcover next February and then paperback in the summer. Steve and I don’t have any set plans to collaborate again, but never say never.
JJ: I read that you are a two-time cancer survivor. How did going through such an ordeal affect your writing? Are you doing well now?
RC: I was 29 and 30 at the time, so it mainly affected my publishing company, which was put on hiatus for a year. Fortunately, after all was said and done, I came back more energized and excited to publish, edit, and write than ever before. I’ve been cancer-free for over 25 years now, so all is well, thanks.
JJ: You also write screenplays – are there any you are working on now? Is there a movie you’re most proud of?
RC: Billy and I recently wrote a feature script with Mark Pavia, who directed Stephen King’s Nightflier. It’s called Trapped, and should be a lot of fun (and scares) when it makes it to the screen. The movie I’m most proud of is a short called Murder House, because it’s the first project Billy and I worked on together.
JJ: I finished reading your newest release, Chasing the Boogeyman, and flipping loved it. Can you briefly describe what it’s about for our readers?
RC: I’ve always wanted to write a novel set in my hometown of Edgewood, Maryland. For the longest time, I thought it would be a big fat coming-of-age horror novel in the vein of Stephen King’s IT or Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night. I adore those kinds of stories and always figured I had my own version to tell. But Chasing the Boogeyman came out of nowhere and more or less blindsided me. Edgewood, back in the 70s and 80s, was very much a typical blue-collar small town and growing up it was pretty much my entire world. Picture the golden-hued suburbs from the television series The Wonder Years (but with a bit of a dark side) and you have a fairly good image of Edgewood.
During the late 1980s, we got an up-close and personal glimpse of that dark side. There was a series of home invasions where an unknown male assailant illegally entered dozens of Edgewood homes – mainly at night through unlocked doors and windows – and caressed the hair, legs, and arms of sleeping women. Once the woman awoke, the man took off and disappeared into the night. As the crimes continued, people began locking their doors and windows, purchasing extra deadbolts, floodlights, and guns. It felt like we were living in a horror movie.
I often found myself imagining what might have happened if the man had escalated from touching and fleeing to acts of physical violence and even murder. Chasing the Boogeyman ended up being the answer to those wonderings.
JJ: The Phantom Fondler was never caught. Do you believe the Fondler’s crimes escalated to violence? Do the police have a suspect, but no evidence? (Sorry, true crime fan here).
RC: He actually was caught in the early or mid 90s, but not for the crimes he committed in Edgewood. He was arrested for a completely unrelated crime in Baltimore City and eventually admitted that he was the mysterious Phantom Fondler. Evidence from the various crime scenes matched up, so the authorities knew he was telling the truth.
JJ: One of the best things about the story is that you, Richard Chizmar, are the main character. What made you decide to go meta? Did it just come naturally?
RC: It really was an organic part of the story. I knew fairly quickly that so much of myself was going into this character that I might as well not even try to fake it. I had my doubts early on as to whether it would work or not, but once I got past that, the story just flew out of me.
JJ: Is it true you grew up in an idyllic suburban neighborhood? Is the character of Rich Chizmar completely autobiographical? Did you actually return home after college and experience the things in the book?
RC: Believe it or not, yes to all of the above. The timeline and locations and incidents described from my personal life in Chasing the Boogeyman are roughly 95% true. I experienced all of it.
JJ: Moving on, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
RC: Accept that it’s a long and bumpy road to becoming a successful writer – and there are many different definitions of “successful” in the writing world. Learn to accept the rejection and self-doubt as a sort of badge of honor that all writers must earn along the way. Be stubborn and get the words down on paper (I’m talking about that most difficult of all first draft) and worry about revising and polishing later.
JJ: Do you have any advice or insight to anyone who wants to start their own publishing house or magazine?
RC: Publishing is so different now than when I first started. Back in the late 80s we didn’t have the internet, it was the early days for desktop publishing and laser printers, and all of our advertising and marketing was done the old fashioned way: direct mailings and display advertising. The most universal advice I can give nowadays is to make sure you have a clear vision of your publication before you take it public and make sure the writers and artists you want to eventually work with see your publication in its early days, which usually means sending it to them for free.
JJ: Finally, let’s do a quick lightening round: If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you take with you?
RC: Kara, Billy, and Noah.
JJ: What would you want for your last meal on Earth?
RC: Chicken and dumplings or beef stroganoff. Oh wait–maybe lasagna or steak and crab cakes.
JJ: What is the one song you play on repeat?
RC: Bruce Springsteen’s “Blood Brothers.”
JJ: What are your top five horror novels?
RC: IT, Boy’s Life, Summer of Night, A Prayer for the Dying, ‘Salem’s Lot.
JJ: What are you currently reading?
RC: Eric Rickstad’s forthcoming I Am Not Who You Think I Am. It’s amazing and should be a huge hit.
JJ: What book do you always recommend?
RC: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon.
JJ: Favorite TV show to binge?
RC: M*A*S*H or THE WONDER YEARS.
JJ: What are your top five favorite movies?
RC: Jaws, The Last of the Mohicans, The Shawshank Redemption, Wonder Boys, and The Thing.
JJ: Whew! That was fun! Before we wrap this up, is there any news you’d like to share with us?
RC: Just a sincere thank you to everyone who picked up a copy of CHASING THE BOOGEYMAN and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.