Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Mark Steensland

Meghan: Hi, Mark. Welcome to Meghan’s House of Books. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mark Steensland: I’m not sure where to even start with this. My bio says the basics. I feel as though anything else will sound like the answers to some dating app, which isn’t what you’re looking for. At least I hope not. Frankly, I’ve always been most interested in the technical side of other artists, rather than their personal side. I’ve met some of my heroes and I don’t know that I would like to hang out with them as friends. However, I’d love to hear more about how they make artistic decisions. So I won’t tell you my favorite color, but I will tell you that I think the ending is the most important thing to know before I start writing a story. And that takes a lot of work. And sometimes that work takes a long time. But it’s made a huge difference in my approach to writing.

Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?

Mark Steensland: Hey, now: those things are secrets for a reason!

Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?

Mark Steensland: I feel fortunate that my mother made reading a priority in my early life. She read to me before bed almost every night for many years. And when I got old enough to read to her, that’s how it worked. We read The Hobbit and the The Chronicles of Narnia. In third grade, I discovered the Three Investigators series after my teacher read one of the books to the class. I think all of those books together really shaped my ideas about stories in general and writing in particular.

Meghan: What are you reading now?

Mark Steensland: I’m in between things at the moment. A lot of my reading is what I’ll call curated, which means that I read things that are related to what I’m writing. As an example, if I was writing something about high school kids, then I’d find books and stories other authors have written about high school kids to see what’s been done before and/or how they handled it.

Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?

Mark Steensland: When I was working on my Master’s degree in English, I took a class called “The Existential Hero in 20th Century Literature.” That class introduced me to a lot of authors I hadn’t read before, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. One of the first books we were assigned was Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West. I almost didn’t finish reading it because I thought it was offensive. But I pushed on and discovered what the author was really doing. That book–and that class–ended up changing my life.

Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?

Mark Steensland: I can’t remember who said this, but I agree: “Writing is more a diagnosis than a job description.” I can’t remember not telling stories. I wanted to make films from the age of nine, after I saw Brian DePalma‘s Phantom of the Paradise. And once I was in high school, I started making short films and writing screenplays. It’s been a very long road.

Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?

Mark Steensland: I converted a portion of my garage into an office I call HOBBS END (after the tube station in Quartermass & The Pit). I have all of my books and movies in there and I am able to write undisturbed most of the time (until the cat starts scratching on the door because she wants to go outside).

Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?

Mark Steensland: It’s all about the process as far as I’m concerned. I have a number of tests that an idea has to pass before it gets moved on to the next stage. As I mentioned earlier, it took me a long time to realize that coming up with the ending as early as possible is one of the most important parts.

Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?

Mark Steensland: Everything! That’s part of what makes it so exciting. I really feel that every story is its own mountain, as it were. Every climb is different. Sometimes they flow easily. And sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. But the early phases of the process are probably the most difficult. Making sure that I’ve got something that really satisfies all of what I think is important about story-telling.

Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?

Mark Steensland: All of them. And none of them. I’m not being flippant. I’m just describing the fact that writing is a lot like eating. Sure, you have a great meal. But you get hungry again. This is an important part of the human condition. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with something to the point where I feel I don’t have to write something else. I hope not, anyway.

Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?

Mark Steensland: Rod Serling was probably the earliest big influence. Watching Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone really gave me an idea of what stories can do. Those shows also introduced me to a lot of other similar writers. Dean Koontz is another who really had an impact. The paperback of Twilight Eyes was the first thing of his I read. Clive Barker‘s Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart left the best kind of scars. I’ve read Peter Straub‘s Ghost Story and Ray Bradbury‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes repeatedly.

Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?

Mark Streensland: For me, a story has to have a clear protagonist and that protagonist has to be going after something that I understand as quickly and clearly as possible. I also think there has to be an emotional component to what they are seeking. That emotional core is then hopefully couched in a setting I haven’t seen before. As an example: take the old “star-crossed lovers” trope. This basic premise resonates with us at an emotional level because we’ve probably all been in some situation where we loved someone and it wasn’t easy. Romeo & Juliet is the drama version of that story. Add singing and dancing and you get West Side Story. Make it about vampires and werewolves and you get Twilight. Each of these is at one level about the same basic emotional stuff, but the setting has been changed and that’s what makes it feel new.

Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?

Mark Steensland: As I just said, I really need a clear protagonist with a clear goal. And then they don’t give up. That’s what makes me love them. I think that’s what makes a hero, in a way. And it’s why we like to read about heroes. We want to know that we can do what other people have done. I think that’s another big part of what stories do for us.

Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?

Mark Steensland: They’re all me at some level. They can’t really be anything else, can they? In spite of what we want to believe about how much we understand other people or know what they might be feeling, we really don’t. We only know how we feel. We only know why we want what we want. So I try to put that into all the characters in my stories.

Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?

Mark Steensland: I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I think we all do. And that means bad covers are a grave enemy. I’ve been fortunate to have great covers for everything so far. In several cases, I had 100% input. As an interesting side note, I made a short film about the evolution of the cover design for my first book, Behind the Bookcase, which shows how many sketches the artist went through before arriving at the final, award-winning design.

Meghan: What have you learned creating your books?

Mark Steensland: My stories are all about finding the emotional resolution to whatever state I’m in emotionally at the time I’m writing them. The Special, for instance, is, as many people have correctly identified, about addiction. I smoked cigarettes for years. But I don’t think I could really write effectively about that part of my personality until after I had quit. In other words, I think I needed some idea of how to resolve that issue so that I could write about the resolution of that issue. That story–for me, anyway–is a very admonitory story. It’s like a warning about what not to do. Which is a kind of resolution in itself.

Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?

Mark Steensland: Page one of anything. I put a lot into the preliminary work, but it still comes down to those first words. There’s so much that is communicated in terms of tone and style and voice. Sometimes it takes a long time to get settled into the right place.

Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Mark Steensland: They’re written by me. Again, I don’t mean that in a flippant way. I just mean that this is true of every writer and so also true of me. Everyone is different. Everyone is going to bring something to the page that no one else can. I also believe that’s the biggest responsibility an author has: finding their individuality and doing everything they can to get that on paper.

Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?

Mark Steensland: Titles are very important. Because of how important they are, I think it’s one of the most challenging parts of the whole process. I spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect title. And part of the perfection (as far as I’m concerned) is trying to find something that no one else has used as a title. In the Scrape, for instance, was a phrase I discovered during my research for that book.

Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?

Mark Steensland: Both are satisfying in the same way when successful. I don’t really feel a difference between one or the other.

Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.

Mark Steensland: I don’t think too much in terms of target audience. Outside of something specific like how Behind the Bookcase was a novel for Middle Grade readers, so there were obvious things that had to be considered in terms of vocabulary, etc. But for the other stuff, I trust that my stories will find readers who enjoy them. And this ties into the last part of this question which is that I hope people get out of my stories what they need to. As I said, The Special is about addiction and I’ve been very happy to hear from a number of readers who not only picked up on that but have commented about what the story has meant to them as well. That’s the best I can hope for.

Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?

Mark Steensland: I don’t recall ever leaving stuff out unless it was unnecessary. In other words, I don’t feel like there are “director’s cuts” of my books waiting to be republished. I spend too much time trying to get them the way I want them before they go to press.

Meghan: What is in your “trunk”?

Mark Steensland: Everything that I’ve ever written is in my trunk. And I work a little bit on dozens of story ideas all the time. In fact, I recently finished something that I started more than ten years ago. I simply couldn’t find the ending for it before. Then I did. So I save everything and often go through the files looking for things that can be developed or rewritten.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Mark Steensland: I’ve got lots of things on deck. None that I can really discuss, unfortunately, because deals haven’t been finalized. I continue to reach out to other authors for collaborations and hopefully those will work out. I’m also actively pursuing movie deals for a number of the books. The feature film version of The Special should be out later this year or in early 2020 and I hope that will drive interest in other adaptations.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Mark Steensland: Everything is on my website. That includes links to the books and movies as well as links to my social media feeds.

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview?

Mark Steensland: I see a lot of stuff about how you should never give up and I think that’s true. The good news is that if you’re really committed to writing, then you can’t give up. Believe me, I’ve tried. Several times. But I just keep coming back to it.

Mark Steensland first learned how to scare people at the age of four during a drive-in screening of Rosemary’s Baby. Although he was supposed to be asleep in the back of the family station wagon, he stayed awake, secretly listening. When the doctor on screen announced Rosemary’s due date as June 28th, he sat up and proudly exclaimed, “That’s my birthday!” giving his parents and siblings a shock from which they still have not recovered. Over the years that followed, he became obsessed with Aurora monster models, Dark Shadows, Famous Monsters magazine, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. His first professional publication was as a film journalist, in Jim Steranko‘s Prevue magazine. Numerous bylines followed in American Cinematographer, Millimeter and Kamera. As a director, his short films (including Lovecraft’s Pillow, Dead@17, Peekers, The Ugly File, and The Weeping Woman) have played in festivals around the world and earned numerous awards. His novel for young readers, Behind the Bookcase, was published in 2012 by Random House. His novella for adults, The Special, was published in late 2018 and has been made into a feature film. He currently lives in California with his wife and their three children.

Behind the Bookcase

A girl stumbles into a fantastic world in this tale perfect for fans of Coraline, Alice in Wonderland, and The Twilight Zone.

Spending the summer at her grandmother’s house is the last thing Sarah wants to do—especially now that Grandma Winnie has died—but she has no choice. Her parents have to fix the place up before they can sell it, and Sarah and her brother, Billy, have to help. But the tedious work turns into a thrilling mystery when Sarah discovers an unfinished letter her grandmother wrote: Strange things are happening behind the bookcase. . . . 

Sarah’s mother dismisses the letter as one of Grandma Winnie’s crazy stories, but Sarah does some investigating and makes a remarkable discovery: behind the bookcase is a doorway into Scotopia, the land where shadows come from. With a talking cat named Balthazat as her guide, Sarah begins an unforgettable adventure into a world filled with countless dangers. Who can she trust? And can she face her fears, not only in Scotopia, but also back at Grandma Winnie’s house, where more secrets and strange goings-on await her?

The Special

In a house on the edge of town, there is a room. In that room, there is a box. And in that box await pleasures beyond your wildest imagination…

Jerry Harford is fed up. Overworked. Underpaid. And damn near certain his wife is cheating on him. He’s never been one for revenge, but his friend Mike talks him into thinking about JERRY just this once.

Now Jerry can’t get enough of The Special. He’s obsessed, and he wants it all to himself.

Before long, Jerry’s going to learn that pleasure has a price and whoever said “Hell is the truth seen too late” was right … terribly right.