Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, strange science fiction, and suburban fantasy: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & Nail, Deal with the Devil, Attempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the first book in a new science fiction noir series, A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery.
Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.
Michael, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Describing your novels as wry horror, strange science fiction, and suburban fantasy pulls me back to the numerous wild films I watched in the 1980s. What elements do you include in your books that deviate them from others in their related genres?
I’d say the primary thing is the perspective from which they’re told. My stories are almost always told from the point of view of the “monsters.” Someone asked me to describe one of my vampire novels, Perishables, and I suggested they think of Fright Night turned completely inside out: the story of a vampire who lives in suburbia and has a bunch of nosy neighbors getting on his nerves. With almost all my stories I try to give a voice to the characters whose side we never hear. There is a lot of great horror and science fiction about brave heroes who wade into the dark – whether it’s outer space or that spot in the woods no one is supposed to go – and see what’s there. I like to start at the opposite end of that encounter and give the Other a chance to make its case. I’ve always felt like the Other in my own life, as I think many of us have, so I want to feature that and celebrate it.
A Fall in Autumn is your latest release, set in the far future. What inspired you to write this dystopian story? Tell us a bit about the main storyline.
To some degree, it’s that I couldn’t make up my mind on what to write next: science fiction, or a detective story? And I also wanted to feature my own experience of queer identity in some way. So I decided to mash them all up together.
I said at a convention recently that I was the kid who wanted to see Barbie and Optimus Prime team up to fight Darth Vader. I like to combine things and see what happens. By no means am I claiming to be on his level when I say this, but I loved Asimov’s Caves of Steel, and that relationship between a human and a robot who have been tasked with teaming up to solve a mystery.
The narrator and protagonist of A Fall in Autumn – I wouldn’t quite say “hero” – is Valerius Bakhoum, a disreputable detective perpetually late on his rent. The story opens with what he thought was going to be his last case and develops into what he expects is really his last case. Along the way he has run-ins with various religious dogmas, street gangs running protection rackets, ancient mysteries, traumatized witnesses, and knife fights for which he is singularly unprepared. But he also encounters moments of tenderness and beauty, of real vulnerability, of deep compassion.
One of the things that made me want to write this kind of detective is my decades-long love for The Rockford Files, or for Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey novels. They both feature characters with plenty of reasons to be bitter or cynical – reasons entirely outside themselves, reasons having nothing to do with anything for which they could fairly be held responsible. Instead, perhaps despite himself, each has become deeply empathetic and sincerely concerned with doing the right thing, a truth that becomes evident the moment their sarcastic veneer gets scratched away. It’s easy to write cynical. I think it’s much harder to write kindness layered under the easy snark, and I think the world is much more in need of that kindness.
The way medical ethics and religion intersect with criminal and civil codes. That was by far the hardest part. The main character, Valerius, is what’s called an “Artisanal Human”: his parents made him the old-fashioned way. Almost everyone else in his culture is somewhere on the spectrum from modified to manufactured, and they regard Artisanal Humans to be either an embarrassing throwback or a semi-sacred artifact from a “simpler time.” The beliefs of a politically significant faith are that Arties need to be “saved” from being “contaminated” by the modern medicine of his era, almost all of which involves some degree of gene therapy. As such, they’ve successfully lobbied to make it illegal to offer medical care to Artisanal Humans, and Valerius has a serious bone to pick with them because he’s been diagnosed with a serious illness. At the same time, there are other religions who think his existence is at best embarrassing and at worst offensive. I actually wrote that as a metaphor for the current queer experience. I grew up being told I was already the worst thing I could possibly be, only to arrive in adulthood in a society in which Will & Grace gets revived because straight people think it would be fun to go shopping with me and at the same time my own state legislature passes anti-trans bills and a county clerk becomes a national figure for refusing on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to queer couples. I wanted that idea of Valerius being simultaneously fetishized and reviled, idealized and oppressed, literally written into his DNA. But because that experience is represented by his biological origin and his lack of access to healthcare, I had to do a lot of research into those topics.
To that end, I did some very difficult reading about when and how and why parents of various religions have forbidden lifesaving healthcare for their own children and caused them to die or, inversely, when religious beliefs have motivated parents to abuse and traumatize their children in the name of “helping” them be “fixed.” It might seem impossibly old-fashioned to imagine a parent who prefers their child die in pain than be treated for pneumonia or tonsillitis or appendicitis or cancer or an infection, but it has happened plenty and much more recently than you’d think. I could name an example of each from the 21st century, and almost all of their parents escaped punishment by arguing their religious beliefs exempted them from being held responsible for acts of child abuse they committed. It seems impossible, but it’s real, and “religious freedom” clauses and laws get used to enable and defend that.
It isn’t always that direct, either. Look at anti-vaxxers. Their ignorant selfishness and wrongheaded beliefs are bringing back deadly diseases we thought had been eradicated, and they’re getting religious exemptions to continue doing so – and, happily, their children are learning to sneak out and get vaccinated anyway. (Valerius was one of those kids, in a way: he escaped the genetic preserve where he grew up sequestered from technology and medicine and now lives in regular society.) And as for the active abuse, look no further than so-called “gay conversion therapy,” or “reparative therapy,” in which religious authorities inflict emotional, psychological, physical, and sometimes sexual abuse on children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or otherwise identify as a member of the queer communities, or whose parents believe their child does or will in future. People who survive conversion therapy are uniformly traumatized, and their parents send them there to make that happen.
It was absolutely infuriating, but it was also necessary research for understanding how the world I was building could come about and how Valerius could wind up in his starting situation. My favorite science fiction starts with something real and then blows it up huge in order to examine it, and that’s what I wanted to do with this.
You have written four books in The Withrow Chronicles. This collection of books looks like a lot of fun. Give us a synopsis of the stories and the evolution of the character(s).
Oh, man. I love writing Withrow. He is such a fun character. To summarize, Withrow Surrett is a vampire lord who lives in suburbia. He’s traded in the opera cape for a big black trench coat, and he does not look like a movie star vampire – he was way too fond of biscuits and gravy in life to be svelte in unlife – but he’s got a quick wit and an old Firebird and a Doberman named Smiles so he gets by. I love writing Withrow because he’s such a great anti-hero. The typical hero starts with everything: it’s their birthday, their neighbors throw them a party, their friends go on a road trip with them, and over the course of the story their support system gets whittled away as they increasingly rely on their pure hearts and heroic spirit. By the end, it’s just them, their worst enemy, and the ring they’ve been fighting over this whole time. That’s great, but it’s not what I write. I love anti-heroes because the reel runs in reverse. They start out downtrodden and disreputable, alienated, perhaps forgotten, and as they work to save the world – or their personal corner of it – they reveal all the best parts of themselves. They find allies where they thought they had none. They discover the heroic core they’ve been told a million times they cannot possibly possess. They build the support network and their own capacity to win in front of us, while we watch. I find that incredibly endearing and inspiring. I love to tell stories of characters who, to their own surprise, find “their people” at long last, and The Withrow Chronicles are very much an effort to do that. I love the concept of “found family,” or “family of choice”: the people who mean the most to us because we connect with them, not through some accident of biology. My found family is so important to me, and it’s meant a lot to me to reflect that in Withrow’s story.
Withrow declared himself the boss of all of North Carolina’s vampires maybe 20 years ago, and in many ways The Withrow Chronicles are the story of what’s required to keep that job. Book by book, I like to take some other genre and mash it up with vampires and see what happens. The first book, Perishables, is about what happens when a very small zombie apocalypse happens in Withrow’s suburban neighborhood. Tooth & Nail is about Withrow and his cousin Roderick – also a vampire, but the total opposite in terms of personality and presentation – fighting redneck vampires in the mountains of western North Carolina. Deal with the Devil is about Withrow discovering his town has its first superhero and its first supervillain and neither of those are good things. Attempted Immortality is basically a spy thriller set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the sleepy off-season of a town called Sunset Beach. The fifth and final-ish novel, Nobody Gets Out Alive, will be published this year. It’s a war novel set in a gated community on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, in which Withrow finally takes the fight to the monsters who’ve opposed him at every step of the way.
I say the fifth book is the final-ish because Withrow makes a lot of allies and forms a lot of bonds over the course of the books. Readers get to meet a ton of characters – various covens of witches, other vampires, vigilantes, regular people – who maybe can’t support an entire novel on their own but who could easily carry a novella. I’d love to write a few focused on those characters and extend the Withrow universe. Every single one of those characters has been told at some point that they cannot possibly ever be the hero, and every single one of them proves that wrong. I can’t imagine a more powerful story to tell in times like these.
What process did you go through to get your book published? What simple advice would you give new authors wanting to publish a book?
With A Fall in Autumn, I was lucky to have a relationship with Falstaff Books already. I pitched them the book and they said yes based on our history with The Withrow Chronicles. But the story of how I got to work with Falstaff in the first place is a lot more circuitous, so let me start with the advice.
I give people three pieces of advice:
– Write what you want to read, not what’s on the shelves or what you think will be popular. The process of going from blank page to book-in-hand will be sufficiently drawn out, and taxing, and tiring, and frustrating, and filled with enough self-doubt and naysayers, that you will never finish unless you are writing the story you need to tell and no other. If it’s something a hundred other people have already written, so be it. None of them has written your version of it, and yours may be the best.
– Try the traditional avenues of querying agents and pitching books to publishers, in part because regardless of the outcome the work of doing so will help you refine how you talk about your book and how you sell others on it. You’ll discover what aspects of your pitch get a positive response and which don’t, and you can improve it on that basis.
– If the old ways don’t work out, forge bravely ahead on your own and let that be the foundation for your success. Some of the books on the shelf at your local store are great, but a lot of them are carbon copies of last year’s best sellers being tossed against the wall to see if they stick. Many readers get tired of the same thing over and over and want to happen upon whatever weird stew of ideas and genre mashups you’ve got brewing in your brain, and those who find you and love you will really love you. Let that propel you forward at each step in the process.
I self-published Perishables, the first book in The Withrow Chronicles, basically on a bet. I spent probably a year trying to get an agent with it before that. Time and again I would pitch it, get feedback, get rejected because “no bookstore will know where to shelve it,” and refine my pitch. I never landed an agent, and gave up after a year. But by the time I self-pubbed it, I had the elevator pitch nailed down. Perishables won a juried literary award, the Laine Cunningham Award, immediately after publication and that allowed me to take it to conventions and get it in front of potential readers. I only have a few super-fans, but almost all of them got to know me in-person as a self-published author and their support is what keeps me going when I feel like giving up. Right after I published Attempted Immortality, John Hartness (Falstaff Books) expressed interest in cutting a deal to republish the first four Withrow books and publish the fifth and any spinoffs. I jumped at the chance. Falstaff features some of the absolute best speculative fiction writers in the Carolinas, and I never would have had this chance if I were still waiting for an agent to pick me up; and, further, I never would have had this chance if I hadn’t spent time learning from the rejections I got when I tried. So, I tell people, go the traditional route even if you want to self-publish instead, and learn from it at every step, especially the moments that feel like “failures.” I was very lucky in that my attempts to learn produced results that others noticed in a positive way. I’m no genius at this stuff – believe me, I expect I will always have a day job – but I have learned to jump at any opportunity that smells good, and most of all I have learned that I must always be open to ways I can improve my approach and my craft and my pitch.
What can we expect from you in 2019? Anything else you would like to add?
2019 is a big year! I had A Fall in Autumn come out in January, and I’m very proud of it, so I’ve really enjoyed every opportunity to talk about it. Later this year I have at least two more coming out:
Through the Doors of Oblivion is the first in an urban fantasy time-travel series about witches and ghosts and demons set at various points in San Francisco’s history. Two modern-day witches in the Tenderloin summon up the spirit of Emperor Norton – a very real historical figure, and one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures – to help them save the city from evil forces. I’m working on the second installment right now and just love writing these characters, heroes and villains alike. San Francisco is very much my second home and getting to spend time there on the page is such a pleasure.
Nobody Gets Out Alive is the fifth and final-ish book of The Withrow Chronicles. Like I said, I’m not done with these characters – I’m not sure I ever could be – but this brings to a close the story that started in Perishables and gives me a chance to bring Withrow full circle in many ways. It feels so good to put a bow on his story and hand the final installment to the people who very kindly believed in it from the start.
It has been a pleasure, Michael! Please tell us where fans can find you online.
There are several ways!
For big updates and an ongoing exclusive short story, go to https://bit.ly/mgwnewsletter and subscribe to my monthly mailing list. Subscribers also get to download a completed short story!
For shorter, more on-the-spot updates, my Facebook page is at https://fb.me/MichaelGWilliamsAuthor
My Amazon author page is at http://bit.ly/mgw-amazon and if you follow me there then you will (eventually) hear about everything with my name on it.
I’m less active on Twitter and Instagram, but on both you can find me as @mcmanlypants.
Thank you so much for this opportunity and for your and your readers’ time. I really appreciate it!