Interview with Nick Rayner
Creator and editor of The Tandem Region Times, Rayner’s website is a fictional online horror newspaper from a fictional Canadian region. You can see our Spotlight on The Tandem Region Times here.
Form: Primarily short stories told as if they are news reports, but we also accept poetry, comics, fake reviews, visual art, and everything else.
Genre: Horror, Experimental
Why did you become a writer?
I think it’s the opposite for me and most others; they have other careers to support the writing. After a certain point you just settle on being a storyteller and even if you’re not writing it down, you’re doing it in your head or you’re doing it vocally. It gets to a point where it’s just a thing you do, and most people I know do it on the side because the publishing industry is a weird racket, especially in Canada, where I am. A lot of people are moving to the digital side of things rather than traditional publishing, which is exciting. I think it’s the only thing that keeps a lot of brilliant people going; the simple exposure.
Why do you choose to work in the speculative genres?
It was the stuff I was interested in reading. I grew up reading comic books and watching movies, and in these genres speculative work thrives. It makes millions and billions of dollars. They have armies of fans and are really seeing mainstream success. The Avengers is speculative. So is the Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter, Walking Dead, Batman, and Godzilla.
In the literary world, it’s kind of shuffled aside to this ghetto full of creeps and hacks. These are the stories that take risks, though. This is where mythology is created. This is the type of work that human beings have been doing for as long as they’ve been writing stories.
In contemporary speculative work, they take risks with the concepts, they take risks with the characters, they take risks with the format, and they take risks with the archetypes. You can be more sensational, you can paint with broader and more colorful strokes, you can experiment. And not experiment in the sense of “let me do something weird and alienating on purpose,” it’s “I’ve never seen this before, I’ve never tried this before, and maybe I can make a beautiful patchwork monster over here.”
There’s no better time than now to do it, as well. It’s all anyone wants to see anymore. It’s all anyone wants to make movies or shows about.
What aspect of speculative writing do you find most challenging, and how do you address that?
Being a fan of the genre and essentially writing fan fiction. All zombie movies blurred together a long time ago for me. For a genre that deals in the weirdest things, you see a lot of repetitive shit happening. Horror movies are bad for this. You need to weigh these things in your head, like “these are the things people respond to and these are the story rhythms people are comfortable with” and “I need to try something new and daring without alienating the viewer.” It’s a constant give-and-take. The inclination is to bundle all your weird stuff into a twist ending or a dream sequence and you need to avoid that.
Also, it’s easy to neglect the characters, or to see them as mannequins attached to ropes that are only there to occupy and shuffle around the real interesting stuff happening around them. At the same time, I would take that over someone delving too deeply into characters and wasting time that way. A lot of people hated Prometheus but I thought it was a great balance in this regard. You can edit that part out if you think people are going to switch to another tab.
What motivates you to keep writing?
I like telling stories. I read something once that said history is not written by the victors. History is written by the writers. Empires that are very friendly towards writers tend to be viewed more great through the cloudy lens of time. As a result, writers are very good at telling people how important they are. How writing – even fiction – is crucial to how we view ourselves now and how we will view ourselves in the future, looking back. So there’s that. That’s what we tell our friends and family when they ask us why we still have roommates and smell like barely-legal cigarettes.
But really, if you’re really asking, the reason is that at some point during our developmental years, some switch got flicked and we started thinking we could build worlds. They might be small worlds filled with a few people that are an approximation of what you see, or they are vast worlds full of insane things that we have control over. As we get older, and as we keep writing, we relinquish control over these worlds because our understanding of creation changes. We don’t want to project ourselves through these things, we don’t want to micromanage; we want them to speak to us. That’s the next level of writing, where it becomes automatic. It’s muscle memory.
Like I said before, if you’re not writing, then you’re telling stories in your head, you’re reading things differently, you’re watching movies differently. Now you’re stuck. You can’t unlearn this skill. You can’t tell a creator to stop creating; you can only guide that impulse into other things. I didn’t even start with writing, I started with drawing. I drew all the time, as often as I could. I drew characters and landscapes, but that’s how it starts. Then I transitioned into writing scripts, because scripts are pretty easy to pick up for a beginner. They’re a good sandbox to explore the development of flow and the building blocks of a compelling story. This is a long answer. Nobody is reading this still. I’m stopping.
How do you deal with rejection?
That’s something that you deal with as you get older. In writing and everything. A person’s maturity is measured by how they deal with events that don’t go the way they expected. You can roll with the punches and move forward, or you can shut down. I’m going to try very hard not to go off on a tangent here. Read Tandem Region Times. Okay here we go.
First off, you realize that the world is full of bullies. Bullies can be a catch all term for psychopaths, broken people, angry people, sadists, whatever. Not everyone is a bully but you need to keep in mind that they exist and the one thing they want in life is to have power over you. That’s all they want, and you can’t let them have it. That’s how they win. A bully wants you to cry, they want you to lay on the floor, and they want to occupy a place in your mind. They feel that if they’re not doing that, they don’t exist, and they need to exist.
If you can learn how to deal with a bully, you can learn how to deal with people who “take” something from you, even if there is no malice involved. Someone took your dream away. They might have done it for a thousand reasons, and maybe none of them have to do with the quality of your work. Maybe they were having a bad day, maybe it reminds them of something they read before, maybe they are right in rejecting you and maybe they were wrong. Maybe if they were better at their job, you would be published and you could have made everyone a millionaire. That doesn’t matter. You will want to SEE them as a bully. It happens all the time. Some suit is telling me that my story isn’t good enough? Who do they think they are?
Something was taken from you, and it’s up to you to decide what amount of real estate that occupies in your mind. I know it sounds zen and there’s probably a bunch of people saying I am full of shit, and that’s okay. I’m bringing cargo pants back in a big way.
The other thing I would recommend: look at comedians. The only people I really like are comedians. I don’t trust someone who doesn’t have a sense of humour. My favourite comedians – Louis CK, Colin Quinn, Patrice O’Neal – it took them so long to build a name. It was a grind, it was rejection, or was missed opportunities, it was a life full of executives pulling the plug on things. Colin Quinn probably most of all. Cancelled shows, sabotaged movies, rejected scripts, wrong audiences. It sucks, you had something taken, you had someone jump in and make a decision for you, and you had some piece of shit who doesn’t understand creativity try to convince you that they know better. You’re out of a job, your thing was destroyed. So what now? What do you do? Do you go and get into carpentry? Do you shoot yourself in the mouth? A fight or flight response will kick in as you sit there drinking in the dark. No credits roll in life, the sun just rises the next day and you’re standing there trying to figure out if you’re in the first act of your story, or the third act. You’ll settle on first act because, believe it or not, you have not written your best thing yet.
The way I look at it, every failure is one less thing they can take from me tomorrow. Every time something doesn’t work out, I get a little smarter, I become a little more aware of my environment, and I get up a bit faster. You get used to this if you write for movies or TV. Over time, your ego gets smaller and smaller. You stop taking rejection personally, both because you won’t let people have that power over you, and you are now only in this to tell great stories. All the auxiliary bullshit just falls away and you become untouchable. Welcome to the layer cake, fuckface.
What does your writing process look like?
I write notes. Whether it’s a book, a short story, a news report, or an article, it always starts with notes; ideas, quotes, little things about how to end it, what the beginning should look like. Start with a pile of things that are important, or things that inspire you. Then I piece them together to create a broad concept filled in with solid areas. That way I can see what’s missing. See where the gaps are, see if any ideas don’t fit, see if it makes sense when arranged in any order. I also like coming up with a “logline,” which is something that happens in TV writing. A logline is a one sentence description of the entire pilot script. You only have one sentence, sell me with one sentence. You could imagine Breaking Bad being something like “high school chemistry teacher gets cancer and decides to cook crystal meth to support family.” Amazing, tell me more. I want to hear that story. If you can’t figure out what the logline of the show is around the time you start developing the concept, ask yourself: why would I want to read this story, or watch this show? Be critical, be hard. If you’re accustomed to failure, this part will be easier. It needs to be at least interesting, have some core thing that everything else is built around. It’s a constant process of growing, retracting, reshuffling, and bending. It all starts with those few key phrases or notes that really inspire you.
What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
There’s this poem I wrote years ago called The Killer’s Riddle. It’s a long thing that ends up implying that it’s being said to the victim, the ending was:
“I’m drunk on you / You shake with fear / Who am I, then? / Why am I here?”
I don’t know why but I think about it all the time. I also did a poem called Salt Peter, which I wrote while I was in culinary school. I think about it more than the Killer’s Riddle, just the first line. “My name’s Salt Peter, I’m the coolest dude / And all I like to do is cook stupid food.” It’s just a long poem about shoving licorice into a glazed ham and deep frying it, and boiling chicken beaks with asparagus. Every time I’m cooking I just rap that to myself like the horrible nerd I am.
What do you regret most in your career?
I wish I was more aggressive earlier on, in getting published or writing my stuff. The more you write, the faster you can develop a style or niche, which is a very important starting point. In everything artistic, really; filmmaking, painting, writing, music, all of it. Also I wish I exposed it to critique more. There are way more sites and resources for people to do that these days, so maybe I was a victim of my times. Like Lincoln. This is an American site, right? You people like Lincoln still?
If you had just one piece of advise to give young writers, what would it be?
I’ve more or less peppered it throughout all the horrible diatribes I’ve already given, especially the failure part. If I had to give one more, it would be to see yourself as a storyteller. Writing is just one medium for you to do that, and it’s the easiest and cheapest to do, but there is value to telling a story in a visual way. Or through music. Whenever you can, experiment with different media. As independent writers transition more towards the digital medium, this cross-disciplinary approach will become more important.
Also, I wish I wrote erotic novels early on. They sell like AIDS vaccines and they’re basically porn but you can make money doing that. Don’t think you’re too good to write a story about a lawyer with a big dick for an audience of horny women that numbers in the – and don’t fact check me on this – billions. I used to work in a sex store: everyone is a weirdo when it comes to sex. Everyone’s a big stupid creep if they’re truly being honest. If you write speculative fiction, you can really weave that weirdness into the story. 50 Shades of Grey was about a boring, wack sadist who gets boners for sad women. Now imagine if you did that on Europa. Boom, you’re a celebrity. You’re welcome.
Tandem Region Times is a rather unique form of horror, how did you go about constructing the feel of the writing for the site?
You start by saying “this needs to be as objective as possible.” When writing horror, it’s easy to start writing flowery prose and painting elaborate pictures. You need to suffocate that inclination. Once it’s gone, you can add some seasoning here and there, but always remembering that you’re describing this from the outside. When writing a news article, the idea is to get all the crucial information out right in the opening paragraph. Who, what, where, when, why. Also, make the headline as descriptive as possible. If someone reads the headline and opening paragraph, they should be able to walk away with the basics. That goes against a lot of storytelling techniques people are comfortable with. As the writing continues, the details become less important, but they add depth. Quotes, back story, other information.
So that’s how we started. Now we’re seeing that there’s a way to… marry horror and comedy. Not in an obvious way, not in a Cabin in the Woods way, but… Okay, here’s an example. Here’s a sneak peek for a future story, and this will give people an idea of the type of absurdity we are striving for. Think of this as a template of sorts.
In Tandem Region there’s a town called Museum City, and it’s barely avoiding classification as a ghost town. One of the reasons is that the land surrounding it is untenable, and prone to sinkholes. So the backstory here is that there used to be an orphanage in Museum City, but it was swallowed by a sinkhole with everyone inside, and they died. It was perfectly preserved down there, though; it’s an accessible ruin but it’s deep down in the Earth. The story will be that Google sends a mapping team there because they’re rolling out Google Underground, which is a sister program for Google Sphere, both programs seeking to map the sky and underground. Caverns and caves and everything. The story is that they disappear down there, with the story turning into that they were attacked by the mummified corpses of the children and staff. The Google premise is somewhat comical, the circumstance is absurd, but there is still the horror in there. So then you ask: how do we discover what happened? How does anyone know it was an undead murder? Maybe they find one of the corpses of a kid, except it was hollowed out and flaky like a paper mache doll. It was filled with blood and meat. Maybe you start with that image and work around it, figure out how it moves. Maybe they’re controlled by insects, maybe they’re zombies. Walk down those avenues and see what’s more interesting. Let the story tell itself and turn around when it gets boring.
Do you have any history in journalism that contributed to Tandem Region Times?
I worked as a reporter for little under a year, and it was for a local paper. My co-editor, Johnnie, came to me with the idea around the time I left the paper and it was a really smooth segue. We allow people to play loose with the journalistic format, but I knew the rough flow of a little community paper, and I knew what sorts of stories made it in.