Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. At the age of eleven, she saw the movie Alien, read Stephen King’s The Shining and her attraction to all things dark and scary turned true love. A member of HWA and SFWA, her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Shock Totem and more. She is also an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede and a staff writer with BooklifeNow. Ink, released in December 2012 from Samhain Horror, is her debut novel. It’s on the 2012 recommended Bram Stoker reading list. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook or via her website at damienwaltersgrintalis.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
DW Grintalis: I’m not sure I really know where, but when I was a kid, I loved books like The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson and Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan. I guess I’ve always loved the fantastic and impossible.
DWG: Some of my favorite authors are Stephen King, Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood. Some of my favorite books are The Shining (Stephen King), Shadowland (Peter Straub), Zombie (Joyce Carol Oates), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood).
SFFWRTCHT: A prestigious list. When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
DWG: I don’t think I ever decided. I wrote books as a kid and tried to sell them to my friends. I wrote lots of poetry, vignettes and unfinished novels over the years. I think it was 2008, when I decided to write a novel and finish it. The last one I stopped writing hit 85k, long enough to be a real novel, but the story (or my faith in it) just sputtered out.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
DWG: Definitely trial and error. Reading a lot, writing a lot. Revising, editing. Rinse. Repeat. I’m still learning. The day I stop will be the day I stop writing.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? When was your first pro-sale?
DWG: Not counting stories and such I wrote as a child, I started with poetry. My vignettes started to turn into flash fiction somewhere around 2009 and from there, spilled out into longer stories. My first short fiction pro-sale was “Like Origami in Water” to Daily Science Fiction in 2011.
SFFWRTCHT: What would you differently in your writing career so far, if you could start over again?
DWG: I’m not really sure I would do anything differently. I never had a plan. Everything just fell into place.
DWG: I was walking out of a tattoo shop and had a what-if moment. What if a man was covered in tattoos, he got one more and bam, they all came to life and ate him. Completely pulp, right? But the idea of a living tattoo wouldn’t leave me alone. I thought of it like the xenomorph in Alien, something in you but not of you. A twisted sort of pregnancy.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take to write?
DWG: Ink took forty days to first draft (in 2009), but I spent months and months editing to make it readable.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first: world, plot, character?
DWG: Character came first. Not long after the what-if moment, I envisioned a man walking with a very weird walk– and I knew it meant something. So I tried the walk in my living room. After a few times I knew why he walked the way he did. The image was pervasive. I had to tell his story. It was a definite light-bulb moment. The rest of the story flowed from there.
SFFWRTCHT: Jason Hartford’s wife leaves him for her best friend and to celebrate he gets a tattoo. Only to discover a horrifying truth: The tattoo is alive, it’s hungry, and if Jason tries to kill it, he’ll die. And the price of removal is horrifying. Tell us a bit about Jason and his world.
DWG: Jason lives in a nice old neighborhood in Baltimore. He works in IT; he’s a go with the flow, don’t rock the boat kind of guy. I did not want to write about the big burly alpha male. No: Me Big Super Action Hero, You: Puny Beast To Crush With My Skull. I think most of us have been in spots in our lives where we know things are wrong or bad, but we put blinders on and hope that– everything will work itself out, not realizing that we are the ones that need to work it out. And that’s where Jason is.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the key elements of good horror?
DWG: I don’t consider myself an expert by any means on horror elements, but I’ll go with using all the senses to tell a story. And making the characters real and let them make their choices, not the choices you would make in a similar situation.
DWG: Ahhh, Sailor. Sneaky bastard, great tattoo artist with a smoker’s voice, watery green eyes, and a strange rolling walk. Sailor has a penchant for expensive suits and I’m guessing he cheats at card games, too.
SFFWRTCHT: Are you an outliner or a pantser? Did you follow the surprising ride or have it planned?
DWG: I’m a total pantser. I can’t even plot a short story. I’ve tried, with dreadful results. I have to let the stories unfold as they will. Being a pantser does result in some pretty terrible first drafts, though.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any tips for writing suspense well?
DWG: I think one key to suspense is knowing how to end a chapter in a way that makes a reader want to turn the page.
SFFWRTCHT: How many drafts do you go through before you arrive at the “real” story, so to speak?
DWG: It depends on the story. Ink took three, I think.
SFFWRTCHT: Is Ink a standalone novel or do you have a series in mind? You thought the gryphon was bad…
DWG: Ink is a standalone novel, but all the novels I’ve written since take place in Baltimore and are intertwined in some fashion. Characters from one book pop up into another. A car (non-haunted) from one ends up in another. In Ink, Mitch mentions a haunted house. I never explained anything about it because I didn’t know anything more at that point. While working on another novel, the answer revealed itself, but not in a ‘man, I wish I would’ve included it in Ink‘ way, but in a ‘wow, I had no idea these stories were connected.” But while there’s this overlap, they aren’t dependent on each other. My son wants me to write a sequel to Ink though. I told him no, but at some point, Sailor might get a story of his own.
SFFWRTCHT: What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
DWG: Favorite thing? Other than working in pajamas, never having to leave my house, and making stuff up all day? Honestly? All the amazing people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made.
DWG: I wake up, have coffee and tweet while my brain is waking up and then write. When I’m first drafting, I set a daily word count goal. When I’m editing or writing short fiction (which takes me longer to write), I generally stop when the word machine is done. Which is usually after about eight hours.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
DWG: No rituals, just coffee and Word and silence all the way.
SFFWRTCHT: And that’s not a ritual?
DWG: Yes, I suppose it’s a ritual all its own.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about your path to publication. How’d you wind up at Samhain?
DWG: When I heard that Don D’Auria joined Samhain as Executive Editor of the new horror line, I pinged my agent, and he submitted Ink. Don has edited some of the greats in horror, like Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, Ed Lee and Brian Keene, so when my agent told me Don wanted Ink, I was a little…I think flailing Kermit arms is an apt description.
SFFWRTCHT: You’ve had quite a bit of success with short stories before the novel came out. Is your approach to writing them different from novels?
DWG: A bit, yes. My short stories generally start with a concept as opposed to a character. I build the characters around the concept. With my novels, the characters dictate and shape the concept. Short fiction is much harder for me to write because of it, though.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
DWG: Best advice: Don’t give up. Worst: Why bother querying? You’ll never get an agent. Horror doesn’t sell.
DWG: I think working with EV has definitely helped. In addition to background stuff, I proofread and just started copyediting.
SFFWRTCHT: Are most of your stories horror? Or do you write science fiction and fantasy, too?
DWG: My short fiction spans the genre gamut. Most of them are dark, but not all are horror.
SFFWRTCHT: How many story sales is that now since 2011?
DWG: The Shock Totem sale is my thirteenth pro-rate short story sale. Thirteen is my lucky number, too!
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
DWG: I’ve a story in Strange Horizons next week that I’m very proud of. More short fiction in Apex Magazine and Lightspeed later in the year. I’m also working on (hopefully final) edits to another novel called Paper Tigers for my agent. I have two other novels that need editing. Into The Grey is about ocular disturbances that may or may not be chemo-drug related. And This Delicate Poison is about a woman with the ability to heal…sort of. A minor character from Ink has a larger role in the latter. I’m also thinking about at least one Ink-spinoff short story, because I suspect someone else saw the griffin.
SFFWRTCHT: Are you selling one a month? That’s amazing!
DWG: I think that’s about what it averages to, yes. I don’t think it’s good enough. I can do better. (I’m a bit of an overachiever.) I’m very, very fortunate to be able to write full time.
SFFWRTCHT: Thanks for making time to chat with us & congrats on the success. Any final advice for up and coming writers?
DWG: My final advice would be to read a lot, write a lot, push yourself, and don’t give up.