The Unholy Cause: Interview with author Joe Schrieber

There are several clues that a television show has reached cult status, even if it doesn’t get ten million viewers each week.  One indication is the overwhelming chatter and buzz created by its dedicated fans online, especially in developing hundreds of websites paying homage to the show; not to mention occasionally ‘breaking’ Twitter due to that overwhelming chatter.  Another is attending Conventions.  After all, it takes a special level of obsession – er, make that appreciation – in order to be willing to travel long distances at great costs to be in the presence of not only the actors one admires, but others who share the same level of understanding and appreciation.  And still another is tie-in novels, since watching the stories unfold on screen is simply not enough to feed a fan’s voracious appetite for adventures.

Eclipse Magazine had the recent opportunity to chat with Joe Schreiber.  He is the author of one Star Wars novel and a second in the works, three original horror/suspense novels, and now his first Supernatural novel, ‘The Unholy Cause.’ We are also fortunate enough to receive an excerpt (or two), which we will share with you in the coming days prior to the novel’s official release date of May 4th.

But before we get to that, let’s get to know the man behind the words.

Joe Schreiber (pronounced SHRY-ber) is an MRI Tech by day and writer by night.  Or perhaps that should be the other way around since he works the midnight shift.  He is a normal family man, married and father of two, ages 6 and 8.  The typical middle-class family that also includes a family dog, a poodle named Hank.  Yet inside that normal facade, he harbors the mind of a scarily twisted creator of words that are dripping in chilling suspense and horror.  Which is exactly what one needs to write a Supernatural novel.

Throughout his life he has lived in all corners of the U.S. including Alaska, California, Wyoming, Michigan, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and currently Pennsylvania.  This gives him a unique perspective on these areas and a certain authenticity whenever he writes stories based in any of these locations.

Among his favorite books and movies are an eclectic mix of horror, thriller and suspense.  And rock music figures prominently in his collection.  If there were any doubt, the original title of the novel would have been the quite-appropriate ‘I Don’t Need Your Civil War’ by Guns ‘n Roses.  But since it couldn’t be the title, the song still got a shout-out.  Now, without further delay, let’s get to our Q & A covering the assignment, his inspiration, and some interesting insight.

ECLIPSE MAGAGINE:  Joe, thank you for taking this time to chat with us and welcome to the Supernatural family!  Tell us a little about how you got your start as a published author, your first novel, and how long you have been writing.

JOE SCHREIBER:  I’ve been writing seriously since I was thirteen.  I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen.  It was about a wrathful Old Testament god that goes on a rampage and traps a bunch of people – including a motorcycle gang – in a church and kills them off one by one.  Pretty awful.  After college I got an agent and she sold my first published novel to Putnam, a psychological thriller called ‘Next of Kin.’  Also pretty awful, but it sold.

EM:  How were you fortunate enough to land this assignment?  Is it something you pursued, or did others approach you?

JS:  I was talking to Chris Cerasi, the head of licensing at DC Comics.  We’d been chatting about me doing a Batman novel, and then one day he said, ‘we need this instead, can you do it?’  And I said okay.  (EM Note:  Apparently this is a question on a lot of minds.  Joe provides an in-depth explanation on his blog, so please be sure to check out THIS entry.)

EM:  Looks like we have something in common.  We both work in the medical field and love to write.  What are the challenges in balancing the needs of a family, a full-time job, and finding time to feed the writing muse – and all on a deadline?

JS:  Every day’s a challenge.  Sometimes it is frustrating.  Fortunately I have a very understanding wife and family, and when things work out, it’s extremely satisfying.  While I was writing this book, my boss at work was able to restructure my days so that I was working three sixteen-hour-days in a row, giving me more than half the week at home.  It was brutal, but effective.

EM:  What and/or who would you say was your biggest influence in writing?

JS:  Probably Stephen King, Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury.  And Harlan Ellison.  And the animated movie HEAVY METAL.

EM:  Would you say that aspects of your favorite novels and favorite movies influence your own writing in some manner?  What are some of those aspects that you have tapped into and/or incorporated?

JS:  I think it’s inevitable that elements of books, movies and even music trickle in to cross-contaminate whatever I’m working on at the time, purely as a matter of tone and mood.  One of my favorite parts of the process lately has been cooking up a playlist of songs that are in my head when I’m working on a given project.  It’s like a feedback loop.

EM:  How would you categorize your work (sci-fi, horror, mystery, etc)?

JS:  They’re stories, that’s all.  Just stories.

EM:  In terms of working with editors and publishers, how difficult is it to incorporate suggestions or changes to your manuscript, especially when you don’t necessarily agree with the recommendations?  Does this happen frequently?

JS:  The amount of editorial work really varies from project to project.  It’s almost always useful – particularly when you’re working in someone else’s sandbox and continuity is a huge issue.  So I say thank you, and go back to work.

EM: You’ve written both, original novels and tie-ins based on existing characters.  Which is easier?

JS: I wish I could give a generalized answer on that, but I can’t.  Star Wars: Death Troopers was one of the easiest writing experiences of my life.  The sequel, which is due out next year…not so much.  The Supernatural book was written in about three weeks, but it took a month of edits to get it into shape.  I’ve had similarly varied experiences with my original work, which has taken anywhere from months to years to reach the finish line.

EM:  This latest novel in the Supernatural universe is titled ‘The Unholy Cause.’  Can you provide a brief synopsis of the story?

JS:  Our boys find themselves down South investigating some suspicious activity in the middle of the Civil War re-enactment.  It seems that an ancient religious/occult item has turned up — a sort of supernatural noose — and things get quickly out of hand, demon-wise.  There’s a smoking hot sheriff named Jackie Daniels, some 70s Clint Eastwood references, rock n’ roll and a runaway train.  Classic Winchester stuff.

EM:  Where did the inspiration for this story come from?  Was it uniquely yours, or from a collaboration/discussion with Supernatural’s creative team?  It was very impressive in terms of details of the urban legend and how it all tied in to the hunt!

JS:   The idea was mine.  The creative team basically reined in my nonsense when I wandered too far afield and took too many liberties with the show’s mythology.

EM:  In the Supernatural timeline, when do the events in this novel take place?

JS:  Sometime midway through our current season, I believe, after Sam and Dean have had their rapprochement.

EM:  Fans of the TV show Supernatural are quick to criticize a novel in that ‘it doesn’t follow the timeline’, not realizing the lag of time necessary between writing the book to actual publication.  How much time will have elapsed from the moment of getting the assignment to the point of seeing the book on the bookstore shelves?

JS:  I got the assignment in August and they started sending me scripts for forthcoming episodes, all stamped official and confidential, so I could at least try to stay ahead of the curve.  At one point I was sitting on something like two months of top-secret stuff.  I turned in my final draft at the end of November.

EM:  Too bad I didn’t know you had all that top secret stuff back then!  I would have tried to come up with some creative blackmail schemes.  How are you able to ensure that events taking place in the novel are able to correlate to events that will be taking place on screen?  Are you provided with a synopsis of the story before it airs?  Does the creative team in Los Angeles have input in the direction of the events in the novel?

JS:  Out of necessity, we worked pretty closely with [Executive Producer and Creator] Eric Kripke and his group throughout the process.

EM:  Supernatural Creator, Eric Kripke, appears to be a bit of a hermit lately.  What can you say about working with him?

JS:  Eric’s way more fun in person, especially once you get a few drinks in him.  (Actually, I’ve never met him.  But he does seem very nice in interviews.)

EM:  What familiar characters can we expect (other than Sam and Dean, of course)?  Can you tell us anything about any new characters?

JS: Castiel’s in there.  There might be one or two other Hunters that look familiar.  And I got to write some fun original characters too—at least, I thought they were fun.

EM:  Which character was the most fun to write?  The easiest?  The most difficult?

JS:  Sam and Dean are a hoot because you can pretty much hear the dialogue as you write it.  Castiel’s a little tougher, because he’s so formal, but he gives you a great opportunity for humor and perspective.

EM:  Would you consider yourself a fan of the show, fully entrenched in all the details, or a voyeur who knows enough of the important things to get by?

JS:  A voyeur, definitely.  I took a major crash course in the show when I took on the project last year and sucked up everything I could from the books, magazines, shows and scripts.  But I hope to make up for my ignorance with raw enthusiasm.

EM:  Unlike an original novel, you are entering a genre environment by writing something based on Supernatural.  Clearly, you have already had some experience with that in your work with the Star Wars novels.  Genre audiences can be extremely loyal, but extremely critical as well of their favorite characters.  Do you ever have time to see what is being said online, and how does that effect your approach to your work?

JS:  One of the first things my editor told me when I started writing the Star Wars novels was to stay away from online forums.  It’s good advice.

EM:  The excellent writing team of the television series has mesmerized audiences in the flawless way it is able to blend elements of horror, drama, comedy, scares, myths and legends, which are all anchored in a heartwarming and heart-wrenching family drama featuring one of the best brother relationships to come along in ages.  Did you also attempt to balance all these challenging elements?

JS:  Absolutely.  To my mind, good storytelling emerges first and foremost from compelling relationships between engaging and sympathetic characters.  Comedy, horror, myth and suspense are all outgrowths of that initial relationship.  If you can accomplish that—and I agree that the Supernatural team certainly has—then you can take the reader (or viewer) wherever they want to go.  They’ll not only come along willingly—they’ll race you there.

EM:  You posted a great playlist of rock and classic rock songs that you created while writing and editing the manuscript for “The Unholy Cause.”  Was this playlist just for the novel or is this your music of choice as well?

JS:  I listen to everything, but those songs came off my iPod, so yeah…I definitely listen to that stuff.

EM:  Once you turn in the final manuscript, is your work over or are you on pins and needles to see the feedback and how successful it is?

JS:  I’ve been very fortunate the last year or so to have plenty of stuff on my table.  The day after I turned in the Supernatural manuscript, I started working on my next project.  Until I got my copy in the mail the other day, I hadn’t thought about it in several months.  I certainly hope people like it… I think it worked out pretty well.

EM:  Have you had the opportunity to converse with any of the other authors of Supernatural novels?

JS:  No.

EM:  Many fans of the TV series may be discovering you as a writer for the first time.  What would you like them to know about your work?  What other novels of yours would you recommend?

JS:  Try ‘Chasing the Dead’.  It’s a pretty good sample of what I do, and it’s quick.  I think you can get a used copy on Amazon for a penny.

EM:  What new projects are you currently working on?

JS:  I’ve got another Star Wars novel coming out next February.  I also have a young adult novel called ‘Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick’ in the pipeline and a something’s-in-the-water horror novel called ‘Stillwater’, although that one might be dead, I’m not sure.  I’m writing a screenplay and a TV pilot.

EM:  Any indications of any more Supernatural novels in your future?

JS:  Not as yet…

EM:  I know quite a number of people who are very talented in writing and currently they are able to express that talent only via fan-fiction.  What advice can you provide them in taking their passion to the next level to become professional?

JS:  My advice for writers isn’t particularly original, but it’s still the best advice that I ever got: keep writing, keep reading.  Don’t just read the sort of stuff that you write…read everything you can get your hands on, poetry, mysteries, literature, SF, ‘mainstream’ fiction.  Be as objective as you can about your work, even if it means putting it away for six months or a year and getting it out again.  If possible, find a reader whose opinion you trust and who won’t just tell you how good your stuff is when it could be better.

When you think you’re ready, find an agent.  I don’t know of any publishers that looks at unsolicited work without literary representation.  The internet has lists of agents and the types of material that they represent.

Set goals and don’t quit.  Make peace with the fact that you may spend months and years of your life on material that will never see the light of day.  It’s a lifetime gig.  The world is full of people who aspire to write, but those who actually do the work will outlast the aspirers, no matter how talented they may be.

EM:  And on that excellent and inspiring advice, we brought our chat to a close.  I thanked him for taking the time to share this info with the readers of Eclipse and wished him much luck and success with The Unholy Cause and other projects.

Joe has his own interesting blog titled ‘The Scary Parent’, HERE

The new Supernatural tie-in novel, The Unholy Cause, can be ordered through Amazon HERE.  It will be released May 4, 2010.

Supernatural, now in its fifth season and going into the final heart-pounding and, no doubt, heart-breaking three episodes for the year, airs Thursdays at 9:00 pm on The CW. More info on the series is available on The CW.