An interview with Jeff Szpirglas, author of over 20 books for all ages, including scary novels, short story collections, and “choose your own ending” adventures. Hear about his love of the horror genre, his interest in dramatic ironing and shifting points of view, and the inspiration for his scary stories. 20 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:10] Interview with Jeff Szpirglas
CA: You do write spooky stories.
JS: I do. I mean, I love scary things. … And in terms of plotting, sometimes I go off on my own stream of consciousness. There’s like different types of scary stories. The ones that I wrote late at night and feel like they were written late at night… I actually find there’s something nice and almost jazzy about them. …
[1:50] CA: And then what about with a novel? do you know the ending when you begin?
JS: …The first novel I did, it’s called Evil Eye. It actually began as a short story that ended up in Tales from Beyond the Brain. … I didn’t really know where it was going to end. The other one I published with the same publisher, Star-Crossed Press, was called Sheldon Unger versus the Dentures of Doom. It’s about an ancient demon that … chews the teeth out of your mouth while you’re sleeping. So it’s pretty gruesome. … I’m attracted to a lot of body horror…You will notice that my answers are tangential and that is probably how I write a lot of my stories, that they start in one place and very quickly go someplace else.
[4:10] CA: So you would not say to young writers that you have to know where you’re going when you start out writing.
JS: I don’t. In a lot of the projects that I’ve been working on of late, I have struggled with knowing the ending and plotting everything out.
[4:25] CA: And do you have a favorite plot twist?
JS: … I didn’t know where Evil Eye was going to go. … It was nice when I thought a story that was really spiraling out of control turned itself around. …
[4:55] CA: And how do you feel about tormenting characters?
JS: I seem to have had success with books when I have been tormenting characters. “Oh, it’s really awful how you died in that ending of the story.” … You know, you can address a real tangible scary thing that could happen, but in a way that is unlikely to happen or is so ridiculous that it’s a little safer. …
[6:20] CA: Do you ever write for adults?
JS: I’ve done a couple of books about movie soundtracks that have just come out. … When I’m writing for young people, I’m still writing for me. My wife and I have collaborated on children’s books for emerging readers in grade one and grade two. … But they’re still coming from an authentic place…. And they feel authentic to me as they would if I had written for an adult.
[7:20] CA: And how do you typically begin your stories? Like, do you begin with setting the scene? or do you begin in the middle of an action?
JS: …. I have a story called “Colonel takes Root” in Tales from Beyond the Brain. The first line is: There was definitely something stuck between Jamie’s teeth. And it’s literally about something stuck between your teeth taking over your body and your mind. This was a story that was written while my children, my twin children, were infants and I was getting zero sleep. …I can’t replicate the feeling of that story without having more kids and not sleeping. …
[8:25] CA: And do you have a favorite POV to write from?
JS: Yeah, you know, with horror, I think sometimes first person perspective. I remember Richard Matheson writing, saying something that he didn’t invent a lot of characters; he just pretended that he was the character, and what would it be like for him to be in that situation. Because you can always be authentic to yourself. … I write a lot of stories from the perspective of a character, but maybe partway through the story, it shifts and it’s somebody else’s perspective… there’s a perspective shift and a shift in what the reader knows or understands. And sometimes with the reader knows or understands might be more than what a character understands. And that provides suspense. … I find horror and comedy are so intertwined, you know, and what is scary to one character and what is innocuous and silly and funny to another character. There’s this nice clash of expectations. And when something is far worse than what you expect, it’s very scary. When it’s far better than what you expect, it’s comedy. But it’s all about the subversion of expectations. And that is kind of what makes horror and comedy what they are, sometimes simultaneously…
[11:55] CA: Do you have any favorite scary books?
JS: Yeah. You know, I love Richard Matheson. … Joe R Lansdale also is a great short horror story writer I really like. … I love Stephen King, Clive Barker, you know, those guys. These are not children’s authors…. For children’s writers, Roald Dahl. I think The Witches is far and away his best book. … another great children’s horror writer is David Lubar. …. If I was a young writer wanting to explore the world of horror and you were done with Jeff Szpirglas, you can try David Lubar out. He’s great…. People say like I want to be a writer. Well, just write. … how you spin that story is unique to each person.
[13:35] CA: And do you have a regular writing practice? …
JS: I try to write when I can. I work around the clock as like a teacher and I’m a dad, and I carve out the writing time when I have a break. … I’ve been way more successful, you know in terms of publishing things, since having children.… It never stopped me. And in fact, you know, you just use the time that you have much more creatively. … I’ve always tried to write a little bit each day or every other day.
[15:10] CA: Do you keep a journal or a writer’s notebook?
JS: No, you know what I do? Sticky notes up on my wall. …And even ideas that I filed away can sometimes come back and be a worthwhile premise for a story.
[15:45] CA: And is there somewhere where you get your best ideas? Is it from movies or books or real life or your kids or your own childhood?
JS: So, it’s a good question. And I think everything you said is the answer…. When I write stories with my wife – we’ve done a bunch of early reader chapter books –we have one that’s coming out in the spring and it’s called Shark Bait. … That’s a real life scenario. And we’ve done other stories where they’re based on real things that happen in the classroom. I don’t need to invent that. I know what a classroom looks like and feels like…. sometimes a horror story works best in the world of the familiar…. Some writers … can evoke eras and times that t don’t exist in the real world. … That’s not me. …I’m much better at stories that are set in the here and the now.
[17:35] CA: Do you have a favorite setting that you’ve used in your own books?
JS: … Sometimes I’m writing and I’m thinking like it’s a movie. …. I always have to remind myself to engage in other senses. Horror especially is very tactile, right? … Setting-wise, I grew up in Dundas, Ontario, the valley town outside of Hamilton. … That’s the setting of Evil Eye… It’s a distillation of the Hamilton of my youth…
[18:55] CA: Cool. And do you have any phobias or fears?
JS: Oh, so many! …Like a middle-aged person, you know, aging. I’m afraid of heights. I’m afraid of really cramped spaces. Fear of failure. You know, lots of fears drive. I have a lot of anxieties.
CA: And do you ever use that when you write fiction?
JS: Yeah. I think horror is cathartic. Why do we want to watch terrible things happening to people? It does feel cathartic. … It doesn’t hide your fears from you; it throws them in your face. It tries to get you to confront them, but in ways that might be more pleasurable than confronting them in a realistic way.
[19:40] CA: Do you have any recommendations to young writers for getting keeping or organizing their ideas?
JS: I’m a big fan of sticky notes. … My best thinking is like on a walk….The thinking time and processing time… that’s really important when you’re writing. … Go for a long walk in the woods. … I don’t want to get up and take the dog for a walk, but it actually forces me to like have that time outside. I think it’s important….
[21:40] Jeff Szpirglas introduces himself
JS: Hello listeners. This is Jeff Szpirglas. I write stories. Many of them are scary. Some of them are very silly. This is the voice in my head sometimes when I write. I’ve written a bunch of books. Many are for young people; some are for young at heart. But I’ve written about everything from brains and vomit to scary stories to movie soundtracks. Even an instructional video on parenting when I was a young lad of 23.
[22:25] Find out more about Jeff Szpirglas
You can hear more creative writing advice from Jeff Szpirglas on Cabin Tales Episode 5.5, “Author Interviews about Tension,” on Episode 7, “Just Get it Over With,” about endings; and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Jeff Szpirglas and his books from his website at JeffSzpirglas.com.
[23:05] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the award-winning children’s author Marty Chan. Thanks for listening.
Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Jeff Szpirglas is the author of over 20 books for young readers, including entries for Scholastic’s “Countdown To Danger” series and Orca’s “Tales From Beyond the Brain.” Jeff has worked at CTV and he was an editor at Chirp, chickaDEE, and Owl Magazines. He is a full-time parent and full-time teacher. Visit him online at jeffszpirglas.com