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Interview With an Author: Del Howison

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Del Howison and his first novel, The Survival of Margaret Thomas

Del Howison is an award-winning editor, journalist, fiction author, and actor. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award four times (and won it once), for the Black Quill Award twice, for the Shirley Jackson Award and for the Rondo Hatton Award. Along with his wife Sue, he founded and has operated Dark Delicacies (America's Home of Horror) in Burbank for almost 25 years. His first novel, however, The Survival of Margaret Thomas, is a Western and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Survival of Margaret Thomas?

Many things. First off was my agent telling me to write something other than Horror since I’d already won a Stoker Award for Horror and it is such a tough sell. I’ve always loved Westerns (from my Dad who watched them constantly) so I wrote a Western which, of course, is as hard if not harder to sell than Horror.

Are Margaret/Peggy, Gina, Bantam, Anne or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No but they are composites or several folks. Not the least of which is the comparison between Margaret and Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

There was quite a bit lost in the process of writing the novel. After I finished it to my satisfaction it was 115,000 words. That’s long especially for a Western. So I went back in and did another edit and knocked it down to around 90,000 words. I didn’t outline this one because it is a straight-ahead chronological piece of storytelling. I do what I refer to as clotheslining. I put up two-story clothes poles (beginning and end) and stretch the storyline from one to the other. Then I begin hanging clothes or chapters or events from the novel on the clothesline. I don’t know ahead of time what clothes or what order they will be in. Plus then it is easy, in my mind, to take something off the line and hang it someplace else. It is just easier in my head to do that. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t outline a more complex story idea down the road. Some of the things I cut out may go in future novels. Who knows?

What kind of dog is Slocum?

You tell me. I have my own idea but I let the reader decide. I put in the story bones and give the readers credit to decide a lot of things. I think that is part of the fun of reading a novel. I know it is part of the fun of getting feedback from readers.

You’re known primarily for your work in the Horror genre (your short stories and anthologies, Dark Delicacies, the Horror bookstore you own and operate, and your work with the Horror Writers Association), what prompted you to write your first novel in a different genre?

See the first question. But also I grew up in Detroit and my dad was a cop. I think he kind of saw himself as a sort of western lawman. Westerns were an alien landscape for me. Like science fiction, they were totally a land of imagination for me.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The latest C. J. Box book, the latest Craig Johnson book, Canary by Duane Swierczynski, the latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine and the latest issue of Writers Digest.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Depends on how young.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Only Playboy

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Peter Straub, James Kirkwood, Thomas Tryon, Ray Bradbury, D.H. Altair.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Many of the anthologies that I have a short story in.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Good Time, Bad Times by James Kirkwood.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Ghost Story by Peter Straub.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Boy’s Life, Ghost Story, Summer of Night, Harvest Home.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Ghost Story.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A cold beer, shady spot on a warm day, conversation with James Sallis.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

What’s the perfect start to every day? An orgasm. Every day that starts like that is a good day.

What are you working on now?

The second book in the Margaret Thomas series.

Del Howison will be talking about the writing of The Survival of Margaret Thomas, and doing a signing of the book, at the West Valley Regional Branch Library on August 17. Information about the program can be found here.

Howison, Del

Margaret “Peggy” Thomas was happy living on a farm just outside of Bleak Knob, Missouri with her husband James, who was the local sheriff. But her life was shattered the day the bank was robbed and James, while ensuring Peggy’s safety, was gunned down. This sends Peggy into a downward spiral of remorse and regret, until, three years later, she receives a telegram from Arizona stating that one of the men that killed James has been captured, is going to trial, and she is welcome to attend if she wishes. Arizona is a long way from Missouri, and Peggy would be a woman traveling alone, but this is something she needs to do. She must attend this trial as it is the last thing she can do for James.

In The Survival of Margaret Thomas, Del Howison tells a story that is instantly familiar, with all of the recognizable trappings of a classic Western tale, but simultaneously seeming like a welcome discovery of something new and exciting. The Survival of Margaret Thomas is also proof that there are still compelling Western stories to be told by writers that can navigate the conventions of a genre, create interesting characters and tell a gripping, page-turning story.