Author Interview with Jeff Szpirglas

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. All ages.

A full transcript is available at

Show Notes

[0:00] Intro

[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


[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

Guest Author:


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 .


Author Interview with Lisa Dalrymple

An interview with Lisa Dalrymple, author of 11 books for young readers, picture books, novels, and non-fiction, most recently Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada. Hear her advice on creating tension, her attraction to wilderness settings, and her lifelong fear of dark water. 20 minutes. All ages.

A full transcript is available at

Show Notes

[0:00] Intro

[1:10] Interview with Lisa Dalrymple

CA: …How do you feel about tormenting characters?

LD: It’s fun. … I can best torment my character by knowing why I’m terrified of and putting my character in a situation that I would find incredibly difficult. So I’m so terrified of dark water … So I took my character and I put him in the middle of the Amazon jungle, swimming in a creek, a tributary off the Amazon…and I had him have to rescue someone. …


[2:15] CA: When you’re drafting, do you start at the beginning of the story?

LD: I do. And I like to begin my story with action. I like there to be something like a pinnacle moment that is happening, so when the reader opens the book, they are right there in the moment with the character.


[2:35] CA: Do you have any advice for young writers on how to begin their stories?

LD: I do. … Spend some time with your character. And then when this plot element happens to them, your readers are like, Whoa… Like the situation that I was talking about. Swimming in the Amazon would be terrifying to anyone, but you take a kid who can’t even enter swimming pools if he can’t see the bottom, and all of a sudden your reader knows this kid, your reader has been his friend because you set it up and you develop your character to that point and your reader understands just how terrified he really is. …


[3:40] CA: Do you tend to edit yourself as you draft? …

LD: I over-edit as I’m writing. … So do as I say, not as I do. …Deadlines come in helpful…


[4:55] CA: You revise as you draft and then do you revise at the end as well, in a separate process from drafting?

LD: I do, but there’s much less that needs to be done because I’ve already kind of gone and tweaked every sentence far too much. So at the end, normally what I do at that point is, even now, I give it to a peer. ….


[5:30] CA: Do you ever read your work out loud as you revise?

LD: Always…. I don’t know if this comes from having started as a picture book writer, and a lot of my picture books rhyme … I would read out loud in order to get not just the rhyme scheme down but that cadence and that meter and to make sure that it felt very natural and not forced. And I find that I can’t lose that even when I’m writing prose. …


[6:25] CA: Do you have a favorite POV to write from?

LD: I very much like writing from first person present tense. … The last book I wrote … I couldn’t write it that way at all because to be nonfiction I had to say “her” not “me,” and of course it was all past tense. So that was an adjustment for me. But … my favourite is definitely first-person, present tense.


[7:10] CA: And do you have a favorite setting from either from your own work or from a favorite piece of fiction?

LD: …When you say that I immediately end up in the wilderness, in the woods. … Maybe because of the potential and the mystery that’s out there in the woods and that anything can happen. I really like that.


[7:40] CA: And do you do any setting exercises yourself? …

LD: …Absolutely. And especially with the work I was doing with the ten women in Fierce, every single one of them, and they were all different time periods …. So I would have to research what was going on in each time period… And I would have maps of where they traveled to the best of our knowledge …


[8:45] CA: And do you have any exercises that you would recommend to young writers for building either setting or character?

LD: I do but I’ve stolen them from other writers… I have them fill out their application for summer camp … it’s amazing how much you can learn from a character just by answering those basic questions. … But … once you’ve got this filled in, you need to know that you don’t have to get every detail that came out of that into your book…especially not on the first page or two.


[10:40] CA: And do you keep a journal or sketchbook?

LD: I don’t. Unless I’m traveling. … So it’s something that I definitely should do more of. …


[11:10] CA: And where would you say you get some of your best ideas?

LD: … definitely my kids. …. Just the different insights that they have into the world and the different things that they’re confronting and dealing with. They definitely inspire probably everything I’ve done, really.


[11:40] CA: And do you have any advice to young writers on getting ideas or organizing ideas into stories?

LD: I find that whenever I’m called on to write something, … I never have an idea. … But when I’m doing something else … I will have all these ideas … but I never have a chance to write them down. So what I do is I have this little portfolio, filofax kind of thing. And whenever I have an idea, I take a moment and I write it down. … And it’s in the box and it means that next time I’m like, “What should I write about? I should start something new,” then I can open the portfolio…


[13:25] CA: …. And do you have a regular writing practice? …

LD: Once I come into the world for the morning, I tend to lose whatever creative spark that I might have had. So I make my coffee while the house is getting ready and … I kind of tiptoe out, still in my pyjamas, to my shed. And I sit out here and I write, usually for a couple of hours. Those are my best hours of the morning. …


[14:20] CA: And what were some of the books that influenced you or made you want to write?

LD: I grew up in England. I lived there till I was eight. Enid Blyton was a big one for me… I loved her books. And that probably had a big impact on me because a lot of my books were – like when I was ten – were adventure books. You know, kids getting lost in the forest or the wilderness….


[15:20] CA: And did you as a kid have an off-the-cuff storytelling experience, either around the fire or any sort where you made up stories on the fly and told them?

LD: I was involved in Girl Guides until I was in my early 20s to be honest. … So we spent a lot of time around the campfire telling stories and singing songs and jokes. …


[15:50] CA: So do you have any favorite scary stories?

LD: … I find that I’ve tried to tell them to my kids when we’ve been camping. We’ll be sitting around the campfire. And I can remember with such clarity the stories that we would hear…. But I cannot for the life of me remember how the story began or ended. So I kind of fail as a campfire storyteller actually…


[16:40] CA: And do you collect anything?

LD: I’ve always been a collector. …. I think the things that I collect these days are very different than when we used to be younger and collect like scratch-and-sniff stickers and friendship bracelets and things like that. I still put together photo albums and I get 4x6s printed of every moment in our lives. … it sounds really cheesy to say that I’m collecting memories.


[17:25] CA: Lovely. Well, this has been very fruitful…. thank you again so much for your time.

LD: Okay. …Bye.


[18:05] Lisa Dalrymple introduces herself

LD: I’m Lisa Dalrymple. I’m a Canadian writer. And it’s kind of difficult to pin me down because I’ve written picture books and I’ve written middle-grade novels for older students; I’ve written nonfiction and I’ve written fiction. I think I was probably writing as soon as I could hold a pencil. And right now, because there’s very little like I can do given Covid, I’ve actually gone back to high school – even though I have two degrees in English – because I love math and science as well, just to sort of further differentiate. So yeah.


[18:45] Find out more about Lisa Dalrymple

You can hear more creative writing advice from Lisa Dalrymple on Cabin Tales Episode 5.5, “Author Interviews about Tension,” on Episode 7.5: “Author Interviews about Endings;” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Lisa Dalrymple and her books from her website at


[19:40] Thanks and coming up on the podcast

I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the spooky story author Jeff Szpirglas, who joins me from Hamilton, Ontario.

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

Guest Author:


Lisa Dalrymple has written 11 books for young readers, including Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada, and Skink on the Brink. She now lives in Fergus, Ontario with her husband and their 3 highly-energetic children. Find her online at

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