Please welcome Andy Davidson to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. In the Valley of the Sun is published on June 6th by Skyhorse Publishing.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Andy: When I was ten, my fifth-grade teacher had us write in journals every morning—whatever we wanted, no restrictions. I filled up a notebook with weird, episodic little stories about an earthworm who wore a hat, drove a car, got married, had relatives come to stay. The teacher let us read aloud what we’d written, but I was too nervous to stand in front of the class. So, one day this other kid snatches my notebook and starts to read for me. Turns out, he’s a terrible reader, so I get up and finish the job, and to this day I still remember the expressions on the other kids’ faces when I looked up from the end of the story: they were rapt. That was the moment, I’ve always suspected, when I fell in love with writing.
It would be a lie to say I’ve been writing ever since. In fact, for about ten years after getting my MFA, I didn’t write fiction at all. I dabbled with screenplays, started smaller projects that went unfinished. Lost my way a bit. I don’t remember when, exactly, I woke up, but I did. A confluence of fear and love brought me back to it and made me see: it’s now or never. So, I worked harder at it than I ever had in my life, and I was as surprised as anyone when it paid off.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Andy: I guess I'm a hybrid, but I lean more toward plotting than pantsing. There's something about the word “pantser” that sounds dirty, like you could get arrested for doing it, so I try not to do it all that much. But writing is an organic process, whether you plot or not. I plot heavily up front, so that I always know (mostly) where I'm going. Inevitably, how I get there changes based on the needs of the story, and I end up reshaping things along the way.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Andy: I work forty hours a week in a regular job, so making time for writing—especially in the early stages, when I’m just trying to get a project off the ground—isn’t always easy. Imagining what the story could be, all the preliminary work, that’s play. It’s fun. But sooner or later, you have to start, and escape velocity is critical: getting enough words written so I can't turn back, so I have to finish. Eventually, the process kicks in and it becomes habit. But there’s an iffy period, early on, when I could easily crash and burn. Pushing through that (about the first 20,000 words of a novel) is tough.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Andy: I keep a bulletin board at work pinned with pictures of writers and filmmakers (teachers, all of them) who remind me, daily, what I’m supposed to be doing and how I’m supposed to be doing it. Among these folks are Barry Hannah, Jack Butler, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Charles Portis, the Coen Brothers, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, and David Lynch. Also: my wife. She’s a lifelong pen-and-paper gamer, and we often talk about the mechanics of story or some aspect of character or how to get out of a tricky place, plot-wise. It’s good to have someone who really understands storytelling to talk to. It keeps the wheels spinning.
TQ: Describe In the Valley of the Sun in 140 characters or less.
Andy: A Texas serial killer becomes a vampire at the hands of his would-be victim. Tender Mercies meets Taxi Driver by way of Near Dark.
TQ: Tell us something about In the Valley of the Sun that is not found in the book description.
Andy: There’s a lighter side to the book. It does have a few funny moments. And it’s ultimately a love story—not necessarily about one character’s pursuit of another but more about the idea of love, how we all need someone else to complete us, whether it’s a wife, a husband, a child, or even God.
TQ: What inspired you to write In the Valley of the Sun? What appeals to you about combining Horror and Westerns?
Andy: About five years ago, my wife and I decided to enclose our yard with a privacy fence. It turned out to be a massive fence, and when it came time to paint the sucker, I found myself outside for days on end, painting and painting and painting. I plugged into my iPod while I worked. One of the songs that kept cycling through was Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honkytonk Man.” It struck me that the singer—a man who tells the listener he just can’t stop doing what he’s doing—is fessing up to a compulsion, a compulsion that leaves him a little broken when all’s said and done. I thought it was kind of sinister, this song. At the time, I was learning scriptwriting by reading screenplays and books on writing, so I layered this idea—a psychotic cowboy who can’t stop hooking up with women in juke-joints—over Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, which is one of my favorite films. I wrote the script, then turned the script into a first draft of a novel. But what I had written just wasn’t working. It had zero supernatural elements. It didn’t spark my interest, as a reader. So I went back to my great childhood love of horror novels, and I’m reading Salem’s Lot and it hits me: Travis is already a kind of metaphorical vampire, so why not make him a literal vampire? As a reader, now I’m hooked. It introduces mystery, antagonism, all sorts of things that weren’t there before.
Horror stories and Westerns share this idea of the unknown, I think. In Westerns, the unknown is usually some outcome or destination you can’t see, i.e. a perilous journey to some unmapped place. That place can be a literal landscape or a figurative destination, some dark place in our own hearts. In Horror, the unknown is typically what terrifies us: a dark storm drain or basement. But it can also mean the bad things we fear we’re capable of doing, given the wrong set of circumstances. In both genres, though, people are usually drawn toward something that will either damn them or set them free. There’s a lot of that in my novel, being compelled toward a thing you don’t fully understand—and all the dangers inherent to chasing that compulsion. For me, that’s what the West is.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for In the Valley of the Sun?
Andy: Most of my research was about atmosphere and landscape, with a little bit of forensic research. Since the book is set in West Texas, I read No Country for Old Men again. I spent a long time with Google Earth’s ground-level views of the region. I listened to a lot of old country music, which was not all new to me (country music was a big part of my childhood, just like horror novels). I looked at a lot of Wikipedia articles about trees in West Texas. Diagrams of box turtle anatomy. Eventually, my wife and I were able to visit out there, which was invaluable in terms of finding perfect details the Internet just can’t give you, like the actual sound of a windmill turning in the desert, or the little bones you find littering the highways.
TQ: Please tell us about In the Valley of the Sun's cover.
Andy: Well, the sun’s going to feature prominently in any vampire novel—but especially in one called In the Valley of the Sun. The cover is really all about mood. In a word, “dread.” Erin Seaward-Hiatt at Skyhorse is the cover designer. Talking with my editor, we wanted it to have the feel of an old photograph found in a drawer, something that might chill you if happened upon it. Annabelle Gaskin, who owns the motel where much of the novel takes place, photographs sunsets and sunrises and hangs the pictures in her café. I always imagined the book’s cover was one of hers. Maybe one she never framed because it scared her, inexplicably.
TQ: In In the Valley of the Sun who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Andy: John Reader, the Texas Ranger, was the easiest. In part, that’s because I understood him from the beginning: he’s not particularly happy with what he does for a living, but he does it well, and he loves his wife more than anything else in the world. The two of them share what all couples share: a history of happiness and sadness and everything in between. Also, he’s an archetypal figure, the man of the law, so his course of action in any given situation was always clear to me, even if it wasn’t to him. Reader does what’s right. Maybe he strays, but he comes back to the path. Characters like that, if they have a clear voice, almost write themselves.
The hardest character was Travis. Writing a serial killer isn’t easy. The main challenge is imbuing him with a personality that’s not cold or blank—seeing all aspects of him, in other words, from his sense of humor to the genuine kindness he sometimes shows to others. Of course, at the end of the day, he does have to be scary, but he can’t be so scary that he loses the reader’s sympathy—ever. That’s a tricky thing to pull off. Props to my editor for pushing me to get him right. I’m really proud of him, actually—as proud as one can be, I guess, of a murderer.
TQ: Which question about In the Valley of the Sun do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Andy: This is sort of about the book. At a reading last year, I had a student ask me, “What’s your favorite novel?” It caught me completely off guard! I actually couldn’t think of a definitive answer. I told him I could have easily given him my favorite movie (it’s JAWS). But later, when searching for an epigraph for In the Valley of the Sun, it just struck me, the one book I’d call a perfect novel, and one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read? Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter. So, there it is. If anyone ever asks me that again at a reading, I’m ready for it.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from In the Valley of the Sun.
Andy: “The world’s just full of monsters.” – Reader
TQ: What's next?
Andy: I’ve got another book already finished called The Boatman’s Daughter. I’m currently revising it, getting it ready for submission—it takes place in my home state of Arkansas, features a swamp witch and a mad preacher—and I’ve hit the 25,000-word mark on a third novel. If I had to pitch that one, I’d tell you it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula meets Smokey and the Bandit.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
In the Valley of the Sun
Skyhorse Publishing, June 6, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
Deftly written and utterly addictive, this Western literary horror debut will find a home with fans of authors like Joe Hill, Cormac McCarthy, and Anne Rice.
One night in 1980, a man becomes a monster.
Haunted by his past, Travis Stillwell spends his nights searching out women in West Texas honky-tonks. What he does with them doesn’t make him proud, just quiets the demons for a little while. But after Travis crosses paths one night with a mysterious pale-skinned girl, he wakes weak and bloodied in his cabover camper the next morning—with no sign of a girl, no memory of the night before.
Annabelle Gaskin spies the camper parked behind her motel and offers the cowboy a few odd jobs to pay his board. Travis takes her up on the offer, if only to buy time, to lay low and heal. By day, he mends the old motel, insinuating himself into the lives of Annabelle and her ten-year-old son. By night, in the cave of his camper, he fights an unspeakable hunger. Before long, Annabelle and her boy come to realize that this strange cowboy is not what he seems.
Half a state away, a grizzled Texas Ranger is hunting Travis for his past misdeeds, but what he finds will lead him to a revelation far more monstrous. A man of the law, he’ll have to decide how far into the darkness he’ll go for the sake of justice.
When these lives converge on a dusty autumn night, an old evil will find new life—and new blood.
Andy Davidson holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Mississippi. His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Carve magazine, the Santa Clara Review, and other journals. He lives in Georgia with his wife.