Paul Wilson is a multi-talented writer who has won numerous awards and published over fifty novels, all while maintaining a family medical practice. He is as well known for his science fiction as he is for his spine-tingling horror. We sat down with him at a recent Marcon where he generously shared his time and thoughts.
Joy Ward is the author of one novel. She has several stories in print, in magazines and in anthologies, and has also conducted interviews, both written and video, for other publications.
Joy Ward: You write in several genres. What is your first love?
Paul Wilson: Oh, horror.
JW: What is it about horror?
FPW: I think you’re wired for certain things and I was wired for monsters. I just know. I remember, as a kid, seeing the trailer for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on TV. The face was huge on the screen. I used to wait around for that to come on again. I actually had to see that movie. It was a big problem with my parents because it was summer and polio was still a big threat. You put kids together in a theater and someone would come away with polio. Someone would come away with the sniffles and need an iron lung.
That was my holy grail, to see that movie. In 1956 or ’55, whatever it was, you can’t wait for the DVD. I finally convinced [my parents] that if we went to a drive-in I wouldn’t be exposed to other kids. It was in the summer, we were down the beach, and he took me to the Tom’s River Drive-In. It just was great, I loved the movie. But coming back we had to go over this low bridge over Barnegat Bay and the moon was on the water. I kept seeing the Rhedosaurus or whatever it was called rising out of the water. It was a great night.
Anytime there was something on TV like Lost Continent or anything that had a dinosaur in it or a monster in it I was there.
The science fiction was part of it. But. I bought the Tales from the Crypt, and stuff like that. I wasn’t allowed to have them because of the Comics Code thing. But my friend Bill Kloben down the street was allowed to have them, so we stored our comics in his garage.
Science fiction was there too. Something that wasn’t like the real world. I guess it was escapism. I got more of a thrill out of the horror movies. I mean I live real life every day. When I want to be entertained I want something that’s not real life.
Also, it’s a visual medium and so it should be visual. It should be telling a story in pictures rather than talking heads talking to each other. That could be on the radio. My reading was the same. If it had a witch or a rocket on the cover of the comic book I would buy it.
JW: When did you start writing?
FPW: I started writing in second grade. Haunted house stories. I never finished any of them but I was writing them. I mean I actually read part of one of my stories to my second-grade class. I hadn’t finished it. But I was really sick of this Dick and Jane stuff and I said to the teacher, “I wrote a story.” She says, “Oh great! Let’s hear it.” So I pulled it out and I read through it. I read through what I had and then I started winging it. It was very obvious that I hadn’t written the rest of the story, but she saved me. She said, “Okay, Paul. Well, when you finish it, come back. I’m sure we’d all love to hear the rest of the story.” And I’m just kind of embarrassed now. I’m found out. I said I had a story; I really didn’t. We’re all pulling our chairs back to the regular configuration. The kids are coming up to me and saying, “Well, what happened with the guy with the bow and arrow? And what happened to this?” I’ve got them. They’re mine.
That was like a shot of heroin. I decided that’s pretty cool. I said, “I’m gonna write. I know.” As time went, on I did write. But I never showed it to anybody because I was so sure it was bad.
I was always someone who wanted to know who wrote it. On a movie screen I’d look for “written by,” “screenplay by.” Even on a record. I always wanted to know who wrote what. As time went on, I started finding out what writers were getting paid on the general basis. I would say, “There’s no way I could make a living doing that, not with the way I write.” I write two stories a year. But I was determined to get published at least once.
Then I figured I would be a dilettante and write a story, and sell it every once in a while as I was making a regular living. Finally, and it took me years, but I finally sold a story to John Campbell. And then right after that I sold another story that he had rejected. I sold it to Robert Lowndes for Startling Mystery Stories. And there like two sales within a month I’m saying, “Hmmm.”
It was like, “Well, I’ve done it.” I’m gonna be a published author. It got into me that I was very happy when I was writing, so I continued writing.
JW: You are in medical school at this time. That’s a hard road. Are you going to continue in medical school?
FPW: I would be a dilettante. I sold a few more stories to Campbell. Then I went through an internship and I didn’t write at all. There’s no writing happening. But after that, once I joined a group practice on the Jersey Shore, and you’re on call one night a week, one weekend out of five. You can live like a regular person. You’re not married to your beeper.
Then I said, “Okay, who’s the biggest science fiction publisher? Who’s doing the most?” Doubleday. I sent off to Doubleday. Over the transom. And, nowadays, when I say that I get these blank looks like, “What’s a transom?”
And three months later they made me an offer. And I didn’t realize that sending your first novel to the first publisher and getting accepted was a big deal. I was expecting rejection because I had been rejected so many times as a short story writer. It was a whole $2,000 for world rights. Of course I signed it. Which, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have. I was so naïve. Because after it was published I kept looking in The New York Times Book Review for my ad. Yeah, seriously, I’m not kidding. I was seriously looking for it. Nowadays you know it’s not going to happen.
I went into New York City and I went to Doubleday book shop a few months after it was published. And I’m looking for it on the shelves and not finding it on the shelves. And I go up to the guy and he’s got the…I say, “Do you have Healer by F. Paul Wilson?”
He said, “It’s not on the shelves back there. Well, let me look.” And he has the microfiche, going through it, “Oh. That’s out of print.”
I run home and called my editor. She said, “That’s the way we do it. We make the library sales. We make the few bookstore sales we have. And if you sell the paperback rights, we take it and we pulp it.” That was my entrée.
Healer started off with a novelette and then it was episodic over 1,200 years. Because he’s immortal. Then I sat down and wrote my first real novel. That was An Enemy of the State. That was sort of my Libertarian manifesto. Then Wheels Within Wheels won the Prometheus Award and I was being referred to as “that Libertarian science fiction writer.” Because I won the first Prometheus Award. The fact that it was seven-and-a-half ounces of gold. That opened people’s eyes. But King had opened up horror and I decided I would move.
I looked around and I saw nothing but small-town horror being written. Everyone was re-writing Carrie or Salem’s Lot. That started the process, and I’ve always used it, to turn whatever is popular upside down and go from there. If they’re doing small-town horror I’m going to do big horror. Something that’s going to affect the world. So I wrote The Keep. It sold right away. It actually sold to the movies before it sold to the publishers. Because it was something that nobody was seeing at that time and that helps a lot.
I tried to continue that with The Tomb, which was the next book. My vision of The Tomb when I started it is that I have this outsider who would be castigated, reviled, thrown in jail if society knew about him. But he’s the guy that’s going to save the whole damn city. I like that juxtaposition. As I wrote through it and I got to know Jack, because I never really know my characters when I start. As I got to know him he didn’t give a damn about New York City. He wasn’t saving New York City, he was saving Vicky.That drove it home to me that you’ve got to make it personal. To really make a story work it’s got to be personal.
I was thinking grandiose concepts for the character, but the character’s not thinking in grandiose concepts. He’s not someone who sees himself as a hero like, “I’m going to save everybody.” He’s cut himself off from society. And he’s not part of it. He doesn’t want anything to do with it. But his emotional lifeline is Gia and Vicky. If they’re threatened then he’ll go to the wall for them. So my grandiose scheme was hollow. It was a good lesson to me, as a writer, that I’m going to have to abandon my big picture and here’s what really matters. That’s what is going to matter to the reader.
It focused more on character. Jack came out of a dream, a nightmare. I was on a rooftop and something was chasing me, something horrible. Everything I did it managed to overcome it. I woke up and I said, “Oh, I’ve got to use that. I’m going to do the anti-Jason Bourne. This guy’s got no training, no contacts, no history of black ops, no karate chops or anything. He’s just this guy from Jersey who did something that he felt just cut him off from everybody else and that he was going to live life autonomously; no strings.
It was very possible for him to grow up mowing lawns and stuff like that and never need a social security number. It worked out and he grew through the book. At the end, I knew I had a series character. I also knew I didn’t want to do a series.
One thing that touring brought home to me was how many female readers I had for Jack. I thought it was going to be ninety percent male. To me it’s action-adventure with supernatural overtones. Guns, you know all the good stuff that guys like. I’d be at the signings and half of them are girls. There are teenager girls there. And there are little old ladies and in between. I was just amazed. I was happy, of course, that I have a big, extended audience but I always thought of Jack as the blue-collar hero where the guy can say, “I can sit down and have a beer with this guy.” But one woman told me that he’s a rock. She said, “Most of us don’t have rocks in our lives.”
JW: Why do you write?
FPW: I can’t not do it. It’s become a compulsive disorder, the writing.
JW: You’ve been doing both family practice medicine and writing at the same time for many years. What is it that writing gives you that the medicine doesn’t?
FPW: The medicine keeps me in contact with real people. They’re both problem-solving in a way. In medicine, people are coming to you with a problem and they’re looking for an answer. In writing, I was sort of presenting myself with a problem or presenting a character with a problem and then finding an answer for them. In that way they’re similar. But I have control in the writing. There’s so much I don’t have control over in medicine and the disease process will go its own way no matter what you do sometimes. And there are things that can’t be helped. You know there’s certain patients that haunt you. I remember this. It was early on in the practice and this girl came in to the office. She had bruises all over her legs. She was sixteen or so. The prom was coming up. She said, “I’ve got to do something about all these bruises.” She looked pale so I stuck her finger, filled the little tube, spun it down, and I saw what we call a “buffy coat.” Those are white cells. And I said, “Oh shit. I don’t know what kind of leukemia it is, but it’s leukemia.” I don’t know if she made it to her prom or not, but she didn’t finish out the year. I mean she didn’t live out the year.
I immediately sent her off to a hematologist, oncologist but you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s different now because they don’t allow you to to have a lab in your office. They’d go the next day at the earliest, and then two days later you’d get the results. You look there and you see there’s 25,000 white cells. You know, big problem. But she’s not sitting there in front of you anymore. It’s a whole different dynamic.
JW: It sounds like in your medicine there are times you can’t get a good resolution. You can’t do the catharsis. You can’t find the solution. What does that do for you that you can in your writing?
FPW: I’m in control. I don’t let the characters run the story. I run the story. It’s my story. Nabokov said that his characters are galley slaves and I’m of that mind too. That’s why I purposely do not do detailed character sketches before I start a book. Because if this is a certain type of character then he’s going to behave a certain way. And I may not want him to behave that way because it’s not good for the story. The story is king, for me. So, I keep them fluid and by the end of the book I know who they are and what they’ve got to do and what they’ve got to be able to do. Then I go back and rewrite from the beginning and make them that person at the beginning of the book. It never comes to a point where, “So-and-so wouldn’t do that.”
JW: Do you ever find yourself writing some cure in medicine you couldn’t cure in real life?
FPW: Oh, yeah. The Touch was my doctor fantasy of being able to heal anything with touch. The miracle cure is probably something that keeps popping up in my fiction. I didn’t really realize it until I was writing Panacea that here’s another miracle cure. Healer, in a way, was. There were sort of miracle cures. Then I did The Fifth Harmonic, which is a miracle cure in a sense. I think that comes from the frustrations of seeing patients you’ve known for years have a terminal illness or something like that. Wish I could do something about it and I can’t.
JW: How do you want to be remembered?
FPW: As a guy who made a good gimlet and told a good story.
No one’s ever going to say, “Oh, he was a great stylist.” My prose gets the job done. I’ve worked very hard to be a transparent and visible writer.
You can’t keep some of your views out. They always seep through. Every character, when I’m in their head, they’re talking like that character. That level of education. That frame of reference. I get inside them, filter everything through their senses and their points of view. So if it’s a racist or something, he’s going to be thinking racist thoughts. He’s going to be judging people by their color.
I hate it when the writer feels he has to reveal himself. At the [writing] boot camp I always use the thing of the truck driver who dropped out of school in seventh grade and if he reads a magazine it’s NASCAR. And he’s driving down the road there and illusions to Absalom’s kiss in “The Miller’s Tale” goes through his head. That’s the author jumping up and saying, “I’ve got an MFA, you know.” You’ve got to stay in character. I’d like my writing to be remembered as clean and lean and mean and it really gets the job done, the job I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to write evocative prose. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to tell a good story and maybe have you see something from other points of view that you may not find in other writing.
JW: There are some people who are afraid of writing characters that are unlikable or racist.
FPW: I’d say that’s a betrayal of your craft. I can see why you might object to making a racist the hero. But the thing is that bad people have bad thoughts. Your villains are not going to have good thoughts. They’re going to think of themselves as a hero. When I wrote Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong it’s a Yellow Peril story. It takes place in 1937 and in Chinatown in San Francisco where a lot of the Yellow Peril stories took place. I went back and read a number of Yellow Peril stories from that period. I adopted the style. They were called Chinks. They were called coolies. I used all that and I got some flack for it. Some of the reviewers really didn’t understand what I was doing. That I was setting it in that period. But it was written for Joe Lansdale’s Retro Pulp anthology. It was supposed to be a pulp tale. I did three of them and put them together in a book that I self-published. I put into the introduction, “This is the way people talked. This is the way they thought.”
Some people are so quick to judge. They come from boundless ignorance when you talk to people. I mean they talk about Lovecraft’s racism. Yeah, he definitely had racist ideas. But everybody was racist back then. When you look at how people thought and you look at the philosophies of the times, this was common knowledge that these were inferior people. It was common knowledge, everybody knows. Eugenics. And you would be shocked to see who endorsed eugenics back then. It was a whole different mindset. We’ve evolved intellectually since then. We also know more.
JW: What does it do to writing to forget that in the writing?
FPW: If I was going to set something in the old South I’d have to use the word “n****r.” all the time. That has become such a buzzword. There’s so much freight attached to that word now that, even using it in that context, you would never get it published. In that sense, we’re editing the past. We’re editing history and not letting anybody know that that happened. You can’t forget the past because, as they say, you’re going to do it again.
I think a lot of people think that if we change the surface we can change what’s beneath. But I don’t buy that. People are people. I just don’t think you could breed racism and tribalism out of the human genome. You can suppress it and you can make it unacceptable, which is fine. It should be unacceptable. But there’s that tribalism. And a lot of racism comes from fear, fear of the other. A lot of that’s part of the tribalism, too. It’s more of an extended family in a way. I don’t have any solutions. I’m sure there are people out there who think they do.
Copyright © 2019 by Joy Ward