John Paul Allen Interview, June 2003
I (Wes Unruh) had the chance to talk with John Paul Allen about his novel Gifted Trust (soon to be published by Biting Dog Publications), which I reviewed recently. I found the book, as you can see by my review, to be edgy enough to catch my notice, and smart enough to hold my attention. I think the same can be said for Mr. Allen as well.
GMR: Mr. Allen, first I want to congratulate you on the completion of Gifted Trust and its publication. I can see this as being an important work in some sense; I expect anyone who finishes the book to come to a similar conclusion, and I'm betting most of the negative reactions you receive come from people who never got through the book in its entirety. I find myself wondering if you want this to be an important taboo breaker, purely a piece of entertainment, or a bit of both?
Allen: One of my favorite movie lines comes from an old Robbie Benson film: "I used to think that a mountain was just a mountain and a river was just a river. Then I thought a mountain was more than just a mountain and a river was more than just a river, but now I know that a mountain is just a mountain and a river is just a river." When I began Gifted Trust my intent was to simply write a story people might find good enough to read. It was just a story ... nothing more. That changed though as reactions began filtering in. You see, I went into this blind, not realizing even as a horror writer that taboos exist. Fifty-eight pages into the manuscript and I was invited to visit the local police department to discuss my story with two local detectives who wanted me to convince them that I wasn't describing real crimes. I was told that I would be watched carefully. I owe a lot to these detectives ... to my former employers ... to those individuals who e-mailed me after reading early excerpts threatening my life (and the lives of my family) because they considered what I was doing to be dangerous. They are the reason the final result came into being. When the reactions began it fueled me. Sometimes a story is just a story ... sometimes it is more. Gifted Trust began as just a story; it became something more.
GMR: Carl Jung once wrote, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." That quote came to me while I was reading through Book One of Gifted Trust, as you illuminated the entity Virago. Could you give a bit of background on how you developed this character, and maybe explain this idea of a parasite of the soul?
Allen: Virago is my icecap. He's a taste of what will be exposed down the road. The book takes readers briefly into the world between lives ... where life forms go before returning to do it all over again. Virago is a character who is part of the other world, but wants to be in ours because that is where he has any control over his surroundings. He is a parasite soul, that is he cannot maintain in this world without being attached to another soul. The concept imitates posession stories, only in this case I don't see him as a demon. He exerts his will through his understanding of human nature. He consumes the memories of those he lives within and uses the dark secrets of each to manipulate.
GMR: Virago is certainly a terrifying entity, even more so by the end of the book, when its true power seems to begin to unfold. It reminded me of some of the scenes in Nancy Collins' Sonja Blue world, where things like addictions manifested as demons perched on people's shoulders. I must admit, knowing that Nancy Collins worked with you on this book certainly helped me get into the right frame of mind. Could you tell me what it was like to work with her?
Allen: It's funny you should mention the scenes in Nancy's books, because I thought the same thing when I read them. Truth is, I never read Nancy until I was informed that we'd be working together. This isn't a reflection on her work, but I didn't write horror (actually I didn't write anything) before the previous two years. When I got word of her involvement with the project, I went out and bought all the Sonja Blue books and went on a reading marathon. I loved her stuff and got pretty excited knowing she'd be my editor. We didn't meet until after she finished. We were both guests at the Comicon in Atlanta and I didn't do a lot of talking. I'm still overwhelmed by people I admire. On her part, though, she was extremely pleasant.
GMR: The cover art by Alan M. Clark on this is also very well done. How does it feel to see a scene like this from your book through someone else's eyes? And how would you feel about seeing your book as a film?
Allen: I was amazed at Alan's depiction of the train scene. Most artists do not deal with the writers while creating covers, because each has their own mental image of the story. I told Alan when we first discussed the project that I didn't want to give him too much of my opinion on how the final work should look, because this was his interpretation. I think he hit it right on the mark. As for seeing Gifted Trust as a film, well of course I'd be delighted. One evening my wife and I actually sat on our patio discussing who we'd like to see in the various roles. Trust me, it would take a lot of bucks for our cast.
GMR: I know from your Web site that we both have a solid respect for Stephen King. When I was a teen, oh, eighth grade or thereabouts, I spent a lot of time reading Stephen King, against the will of my parents. Looking back on it now, I don't think reading Stephen King (or Clive Barker, or Robert R. McCammon) did me any lasting harm. Still, some subjects are definitely best approached with a degree of maturity. That being said, how would you feel about teens and younger kids reading your first novel?
Allen: I'd be the first to say that Gifted Trust shouldn't be on the reading list of middle schoolers, and I flinch a bit when I learn that someone under seventeen has a copy. I'm sure in the future I'll expand the age demography of my readership, but it was meant for mature readers.
GMR: Speaking of Stephen King, you also have a short section on your site about writing that I found interesting. Along with suggesting his book On Writing, you also say that you did some of your best writing when you didn't feel like writing, and that if you just sit down and write, things will come out. Were there parts throughout this book that you felt you had to write, to challenge yourself as much as the reader, even though it was difficult?
Allen: The violent sections did not come easy. When Jeffrey schemes to pick up the mother and daughter I had to take a lot of breaks, and the most difficult scene was the attack on Anna. I give my wife a lot of credit for that part of the story, because the first time she read it she handed it back to me with NOT FRIGHTENING ENOUGH in red pen across the paper.
GMR: With your characters, you travel through their previous and present-day lives in a sort of quest for redemption as they go forward. Is there any underlying mythic framework that you might have been working with while writing this?
Allen: While writing it, I would say no, at least not until near the end. You see, I don't work with a structured outline A was written after C, and I moved sections around until they felt right. Near the end, when I got things the way I wanted them, the pieces began to fall into place, not so much for GT, but for the next two books (which cover periods both before and after the original story).
GMR: I described your book to a friend of mine as being about trying to overcome a personal demon, only to discover that it might not just be a personal one. How would you describe it for those who might want to read it out there?
Allen: It depends on who wants to know. The answer I'm most comfortable with (the real answer) is that Gifted Trust is about dealing with issues. We keep doing it until we get it right. Then there are those who need to know the plot, and I tell them that it's about an evil entity, a parasite that latches onto a soul and travels with it through three lives trying to gain control of its host. I usually toss in something about the issue of abuse and then I explain the part about dealing with issues. It's funny, but people don't tend to get the idea until after they've read it.
GMR: One of the more interesting parts of this book is the self-referential twist, at which point I found myself just a little concerned for your sanity. While I expect you've told this story many times by now, could you perhaps fill our readers in on how you turned negative reactions to your writing into a very entertaining portion of Gifted Trust?
Allen: Oh, if you only knew ... truth is that GT wouldn't have been what readers have now if it wasn't for personal experiences. I mentioned earlier that I was summoned by local detectives early into the book. At that time I worked for a local school, and one day at work I was called into the principal's office, where I learned that someone e-mailed fifty-eight pages of my manuscript to the district office. They were upset, suggested that my actions could lead to termination, and turned over what they had to the police. I found it to be good material for the story.
GMR: What impressed me most throughout Gifted Trust was the way you explore reincarnation as a kind of metaphor for purifying the soul. What kind of underlying metaphysic did you envision, if any, while you were writing Gifted Trust?
Allen: When asked, I tell people that the center idea to GT is dealing with issues, but that's only partly true. I believe the goal is purification, and we reach this through life lessons, which overlap one another. Once this is accomplished we move on to another level.
GMR: I understand you have some more stories coming out soon, both longer works and shorter pieces. What new ground can we expect you to explore?
Allen: The next novel is tentatively titled Gone. The title comes from the Joni Mitchell song, "Big Yellow Taxi," and it's about second chances. The concept has been done several times in movies characters given a second chance to do things over again ... correct their mistakes, but I'm adding some unusual twists. What if the moment that changed everything didn't occur when thought ... what if it happened in another life ... as another sex or species? What if someone changed his/her life, but retained memories of loved ones who would never exist? There's a lot I can do with it, and I have until July 2004 to get it done.
I also have a short story, "Runs Like Rabbit," coming out in the Family Plots Anthology. It's more of a psychological horror story in the line of "Tell Tale Heart." I'm pretty excited about this one, because I'm in a collection with Graham Masterton, Doug Clegg, Jack Ketchum and a lot of other writers I admire. There's another short story on the board right now that I can't talk about until I get the word from the publisher. Also, I just announced on my Web site that in conjunction with my July book signings in Houston and New Orleans I would be writing a new story to be presented in manuscript form and given away with purchases of Gifted Trust.
GMR: I look forward to reading those! Thank you very much for your time, John. I wish you much success over the coming months as Gifted Trust comes out.
Allen: Thanks Wes, I do appreciate getting the opportunity to let people know what's going on. I believe in a good writer/reader relationship, and this certainly will help in keeping everyone informed.