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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, sci-fi horror writer, Richard E. Rock, talks about his passion for writing diverse stories, and the inspiration behind his new book, Frenzy Island.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Richard E. Rock about his life and career, what inspires his writing, and the story of his new sci-fi horror book, Frenzy Island.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a head-banging author from south Wales where I live with my girlfriend and our cat. Up until recently I was a professional writer, working as a commercial scriptwriter in the radio biz. My interests include Norwegian Black Metal, Russian prison literature and Scooby Doo. My favourite authors include Stephen King, Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenistyn, Franz Kafka and Joyce Carol Oates.
I write horror because I am plagued by nightmares and anxiety dreams, probably as a result of my imposter syndrome. I realize that I’m making myself out to be a bit of a livewire here, but I can assure you that I’m actually a rather well balanced fellow. Honest.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
It all started with a nightmare. Or rather two nightmares. The first one involved a bunch of people being pursued through abandoned underground rail tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless Victorian engine. In the second it was me who being chased, in this case by a demonic entity. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and my life force would ebb away.
I thought these nightmares were too good to waste so I wrote them down before they faded away, as dreams so often do. It then occurred to me that they could be put together to form a cracking short story. When I completed the short story it subsequently occurred to me that I could expand it into a novella. That novella was DEEP LEVEL, which became my first published book. So the whole thing happened quite organically. One thing led to another which led to another.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I actually became a professional writer before I ever dreamt of writing a novel. Back in 2002 I jumped into the radio business as a commercial scriptwriter. The biggest thing this taught me when it came to writing novels was to make every word count. When composing 30-second commercials, your time is so tight that every word really does have to earn its place.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The writing of DEEP LEVEL was pretty fast. It went from dream to short story to novella in the space of about three months. Then it languished on my hard drive for a couple of years before I started submitting it to publishers. If it wasn’t for coronavirus this might never have happened. When I was furloughed from work I, like many others, suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I decided that this time was a gift so I used it to submit DEEP LEVEL to various publishers and to start writing a new novel. That new novel was FRENZY ISLAND.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
The writing of FRENZY ISLAND took quite a bit longer than my first book. About six months in total, I think. This is because the story unfolds over a far larger canvas and features many more characters. DEEP LEVEL is pretty claustrophobic and features a hardcore of four characters. FRENZY ISLAND on the other hand takes place across two continents, with intertwining subplots and loads of supporting characters. It’s a far richer novel and was much more challenging to write. But the results are worth it, though. Or at least I think they are!
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Frenzy Island?
Again, it all started with a nightmare. Actually, make that a series of nightmares. I had a whole series of dreams about people trapped on an island of bizarre horrors, of freakishly tall blue-skinned savages, of UFOs and of aliens. I realised pretty quickly that by putting them all together I’d have a pretty unique and compelling story on my hands, so I got to work. I’ve always been interested in the UFO phenomenon and in alien abductions etc, so I really enjoyed researching and writing this one. It was a pleasure.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Frenzy Island?
Time zones! The action unfolds in east Africa and in Arizona, and there is a fourteen-hour time difference between them, if I remember right. Trying to negotiate interlocking plots while taking that time difference into consideration was a nightmare!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
In FRENZY ISLAND I have three of them. In Arizona there is Cynthia Dowley, who works a monitoring station employee. She’s a young woman, about 25 or 26 years old, and a bit of a slob. When I was creating her I started out with her look. She has a blond Mohawk, numerous tattoos, multiple piercings, a large collection of heavy metal t-shirts and a leather jacket. Her personality grew from this; her interest in music, her addiction to computer games, her habit of eating hot dogs for breakfast or crashing out in her clothes. Eventually, she took on a life of her own and started telling me things about herself, such as having a cat called Mashed Potato and an on/off girlfriend called Alison, who idolizes Whitney Houston!
Meanwhile, trapped on the east African island are sisters Esperance and Godriva Watara. These guys took a lot more research to create. They’re refugees so I had to consider where they were fleeing from (Burundi) and why (political and civil unrest). Then there was what they did for a living back home (a nurse and a schoolteacher respectively) and what they did for fun (they’re both runners). Also, as one of them has a baby in tow I had to read up on childcare! There’s something I’ve never had to do before!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Byron Wurd was a lot of fun to create, as he’s so vile. He doesn’t make his appearance until late in the story, but his presence is there throughout, hanging over everything like a dark cloud. He’s a Texan billionaire who made his fortune with a chain of toyshops called Wurd’s World. After that he moved into search engine technology, streaming services and eventually commercial space travel.
However, at the time our story takes place, SpaceWurd has yet to launch its maiden flight. Anyway, Bryon has no conscience to speak of and hates atheists, Democrats and homosexuals. Don’t you just loathe him, already? Let’s face it, the world is full of inspiration for creating a character like that.
What is the inciting incident of Frenzy Island?
A hurricane. Specifically Cyclone Ava that hit Madagascar in January 2018. It’s this hurricane that sinks the ship that’s carrying Esperance and Godriva. They end up coming ashore on an east African island owned by Byron Wurd. This island is monitored by Cynthia Dowley from SpaceWurd’s monitoring station in Arizona. See how everything fits together there?
What is the main conflict of Frenzy Island?
Sisters Esperance and Godriva are trapped in an abandoned scientific facility on the island. Cynthia knows about them because she monitors the island and the facility, and through the sisters she learns that things are not all as they appear there. There was a project underway at the site that could change the course of human history, and they have all blundered right into the middle of it.
Meanwhile, the site has become unstable and could blow up at any moment, and strange things are happening in the skies above. Something big is going to happen, and Cynthia is up against the clock to get the refugees off the island before it does. Meanwhile, Byron Wurd is invested in seeing this mysterious ‘project’ of his through to completion, no matter what the consequences for the world.
Did you plot Frenzy Island in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
The plot of FRENZY ISLAND grew out of my dreams. When I experimented with putting them in sequence I wasn’t sure which way the story was going to go, so it was quite an organic process. I certainly didn’t sit down to consider it. But once I had the direction of the plot fixed in my head, I was able to run with it. Also, as I was working on the book, I was having other dreams and ideas that I could throw in there – curveballs – which helped me to take the story to some unexpected places.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Frenzy Island need?
The editing required was mostly grammatical, with very little regarding the story itself. I can put this down to my (former) career as a commercial scriptwriter, which was nine-tenths self-editing. I’ve learned to be very brutal with myself when it comes to what stays on the page and what gets chopped. I like to keep my prose direct and succinct, giving the reader just enough information to go on, which helps to keep the story moving forward.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Find an idea that excites you. I think the best stuff gets written when the writer is enjoying exploring his or her idea, or world. Working on your project should be a joy, not a slog.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you are planning to write?
I certainly can. I’ve been very busy. I’ve already completed a gothic vampire novel about a lady vampire who preys on men who prey on women. That’s good to go. And, in a bit of a departure, I’m currently working on a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy. Volume one is completed, volume 2 is in the final stages and I’m about 30,000 words into volume 3. Lastly, I had an idea recently for a folk horror novel about a bunch of witchfinders who pick on the wrong witch. The ideas are coming faster than I can write them!
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment?
Yes! I am immensely proud of FRENZY ISLAND and I can’t wait for it to be unleashed onto the world.
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