10 Questions for Douglas Clegg
His short fiction has won the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and has been included in several Year’s Best anthologies
A horror and dark fantasy author, and a pioneer in the field of e-publishing. His books have been published worldwide and translated into various editions.
We had the chance to discover his early influences, philosophy on writing as a career and why reading Alice in Wonderland is something he just has to do, at least once a year!
In this article Douglas also gives his recipe for success, on the relationship between an author and book cover designer.
You worked at the Smithsonian Institute as a teenager. How would you say your experiences picking lice off South American mummy displays and meeting fascinating entomologists, influenced your writing career?
I can’t say it did other than it was a great experience at the age of 16. I love museums, I love studying insects as a hobby, and the museum showed me a larger world, which is something I’ve always enjoyed. Among my peers I was a bit of an introvert, but in the larger world outside, I was totally extrovert and loved discovering aspects of that enormous museum complex. Also, have to admit, I’ve always been fascinated with mummies.
What do you think about writing contests as you only ever entered one writing contest as a young author. Why did you only enter one?
I was possibly 7 years old when I entered that Jack and Jill Magazine contest. Entering a contest brings out something I don’t like in myself, which is the same problem I had in elementary school with the whole thing where the teacher might put a gold star on exceptional work. I felt too much like a seal performing to get the sardines. I don’t want to work for the contest prize and I don’t want the sardines and I really would rather enjoy the carousel than ever reach for that damn brass ring. In fact, the carousel is more fun if there’s no brass ring.
You dreamed of doing many creative pursuits as a child, do you remember the moment you decided that you wanted to become a writer?
I still do other things, I just don’t do them professionally: I sketch and doodle, I compose music, I’m interested in garden design but mainly as a kind of playground art canvas, I like movies and still want to do some work in that area before the sun sets on my skull.
But I’ve been writing stories since I could pick up a pencil.
In fact, I was telling stories from the moment I began talking out loud. When a pet mockingbird died when I was 8, my mother told me to paint how I felt about it. And then she sat me down and gave me a typewriter and told me to write a story about the bird. I did; I wrote a fictional piece about the life I wanted the mockingbird to have had. From that moment on, I typed out stories privately and just never stopped. I knew I’d write either fiction or plays or poetry (or all three).
“Writing made me feel alive. It still does. It is where I put nearly all my energy and devotion. There’s a point when a writer commits to writing where there’s no return and becomes inseparable and indistinguishable from it.”
How did you make a living when you started out? What did you do before you became a full time writer.
As a kid, I’d been working since the age of 12, going from paper routes, lawn mowing, a little brick-laying, babysitting, hamburger-flipping, the Smithsonian insect zoo (which was new then), to working in a retirement home, various offices, waiting tables in a restaurant through college.
After college, I taught middle school for a year and then worked for imagazines and television a bit. Then, I left the regular working world to write a novel for publication. Prior to this, I’d written a terrible novel at age 22 when I lived in Paris for a little bit. That novel was so awful I threw it in a trash can in Paris. Good riddance. But by age 27, I sat down and went for broke (and went broke) and just wrote Goat Dance, my first novel.
I was lucky. Right book, right moment, landed with the right editor, right publishing house. Serious good fortune.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about making that jump? What are the considerations?
I can’t give practical advice on this other than: when there’s an opportunity, jump. Easier to do when young than when old.
Writing is an impractical career. Luck plays a role in doing all this and luck cannot be controlled (as far as I can tell).
“Sure talent and hard work matter, but luck matters more.”
I know writers who deny the luck aspect but that seems absurd: it’s obvious to me. Sure talent and hard work matter, but luck matters more. There is no guarantee for anyone that writing for a living is what they’ll be able to do.
There’s no guarantee for me. I just do it because it’s what I know I’m meant to spend this life doing and I knew this from a very early age. I believe that’s the only reason to do this. If you feel your life and the lives around you are better served doing something else, do that; I would if I could. Even in past jobs I’ve been aware that the job was not for me but for someone else who likely deserved that job if only I wasn’t standing in their way. So I got out of their way and went to what I’m meant to do: write.
Which book would you say developed you most as a writer and why?
I’m not sure if you mean which book among all the ones I’ve ever read or among the ones I’ve written. Either way the answer is the same: All of them. And I’ve read a ton, having been a voracious reader from age four onward, and—as with writing—I’ve never stopped.
What is your favourite book you haven’t written?
I re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass every single year, so I suppose those might be the ones. I still haven’t solved the mystery of why those books have such a draw for me and for millions of other readers, but they do. Perhaps it’s the vast display of human nature in them, perhaps it’s simply the whimsy and mimsy, but I think there’s something deeper having to do with the language, its rhythm. The Alice stories raise questions about human interaction, logic and illogic; a genuine rabbit-hole and looking glass, in effect.
“The Alice stories raise questions about human interaction, logic and illogic; a genuine rabbit-hole and looking glass, in effect.”
Currently I’m reading The Arabian Nights in their more lengthy versions and am stunned by the beautiful dream-like inevitability of some of these tales, the morality and immorality, the difference between these wonderful stories and the wonderful tales from the collections of the Brothers Grimm. Also the influence of The Arabian Nights, which seem to have touched C.S. Lewis, George R.R. Martin, and many other fantasists (at least from guesswork on my part).
What is your philosophy on book cover design?
My early philosophy was I wanted certain things depicted on covers because I thought I knew what to do in this arena. I have learned since that I have no real clue about that, but I’ve come to recognize when a cover is right. And by right I mean: will this image create a psychological hunger for someone who loves this kind of novel?
“Because that’s how I pick up books. If the cover makes me salivate, if it sets off that Pavlovian bell, I want it.”
Because that’s how I pick up books. If the cover makes me salivate, if it sets off that Pavlovian bell, I want it.
Since working with the team at Damonza.com I’ve learned a lot from their designers. Often we go in and I have one idea and the designer comes back with some options and I find that the experience and expertise of these designers is vastly better than anything I could’ve thought up.
With a lot of the covers, after the first few that were done, I’d often just say, “Here’s what the story’s about, here’s the genre, and I have no idea what should be on the cover.” Most of the time I go with the first draft from Damonza, because it just pops for me. It makes me hungry to read my own book. That reader hunger is vital.
It’s never one design element. Sometimes it’s color, shape, balance, subject, etc. A great designer knows more than I ever will about how to make a cover click for a reader via that cover design. I leave it to the professionals whose reputations depend on doing it right. No need for me to mess with that.
“I leave it to the professionals whose reputations depend on doing it right. No need for me to mess with that.”
There’s an interesting relationship between a book cover designer and the author. What are your views on this and how much influence have the designers at Damonza had over your book cover designs. Any one design that stands out?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the team at Damonza on every single book I’ve produced and several more coming out (I hope) over the next few years. Even with the pre-mades on Damonza.com — I’ve found terrific ones that matched some stories and novellas. That was true with my recent novella The Faces. The cover popped out for me on the premade page and I realized it was the exact cover this novella needed. This has happened more than once with the Damonza covers.
I have remained with Damonza because I believe they are the best in cover design, understanding genre requirements and the notion of what makes a cover “pop,” With their customer service and management, it becomes a seamless process for me. Plus the other services: paperback cover design layout, Facebook banners, audiobook cover design, etc.
How many covers have they done for me? 50? Quite a few anyway. I have about 22-26 stories, novellas, and novels in process and most of those already have their covers done and in, as well. The ones already published are here: DouglasClegg.com/books
Choosing any one design would be hard, but one of my favorites is the perfectly designed cover for my short story collection Lights Out. I love the looks of The Children’s Hour, You Come When I Call You, The Priest of Blood, and Bad Karma, too. Well, I love all these covers. There’s not one bad one in the bunch, and we’re talking…a lot of book covers. From typeface to color to image, they are immediately intriguing for readers of those particular genres and convey a hint of what’s inside without giving much away at all.
“I would recommend that any author consider Damonza but also that the author steps back to see what the designers come up with. The cover doesn’t need to have five things from inside the book on the cover.”
I can’t say enough good about the designs of these books. Damonza designs beautifully in every genre. I would recommend that any author consider Damonza but also that the author steps back to see what the designers come up with. The cover doesn’t need to have five things from inside the book on the cover. It needs one message only: You must read me if you like this genre. In a carnival metaphor, the cover stands outside the tent and sells the ticket to the show.
If your protagonist has blond hair and wears a green dress and only eats boiled potatoes with a spork, none of this actually has to be on the cover. The cover needs to be a genre magnet, and needs to be iconic for that genre. If it’s a haunted house story, make sure there’s a house in that cover. If it’s about an intriguing character, get that character on the cover in some way. Damonza did an amazing cover for my novel Breeder. I had no idea what to put on that cover. I had some half-baked ideas, none panned out but they sent me a cover of a creepy doll in a kind of run down room and voila: a cover I’d never have imagined but it conveys the genre and mood that would make me hungry to read the book. It suits the novel perfectly and is iconic for the horror genre.
“The cover needs to be a genre magnet, and needs to be iconic for that genre.”
Similarly the cover for The Halloween Man looks like a classic horror image: a crow in an October sky among bare trees. Iconic. Simple. Clear. That with the title The Halloween Man is enough. Perfect.
Isis has a cover that’s remarkable and suits the story perfectly: without saying any of these things directly, it shows sensuality combined with a dramatic gesture and an immediacy to the “something horror but in the gothic vein.” Just beautiful. That cover blew me away.
What has surprised you most during your career?
The changes in publishing from when I began in 1987. Particularly with digital self-publishing. When indie publishing began to grow around 2010 or thereabouts, opportunities abounded.
I was able to re-launch all my fiction in ebooks, paperback, and audiobooks beginning soon after that year. It was a slow process with a high learning curve, but now, in 2020, my entire backlist is up in ebook from my company Alkemara Press (shared with my husband Raul, as co-publisher) and although I’ve been slow to get the newer work out, I have a viable company that brings in a solid income from a catalog of books that continue to attract new readers. Plus I have all the skills now to run a small but growing publishing company.
Check out Douglas’s website.