Posts Tagged ‘Clay McLeod Chapman’

As many of you know, I recently read and reviewed Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman (read my review here). And now, I’m very happy to let you know that I recently was able to connect with Mr. Chapman and pick his brain a bit. So you know what happens next, Followers of Fear: it’s a brand new author interview!

So, without further ado, let me introduce Clay McLeod Chapman!

Rami Ungar: Clay, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you. Please tell us about yourself and a bit about what you do.

Clay McLeod Chapman: First off, just to say it, thanks for having me out… I really appreciate you inviting me to answer some questions and chat about Whisper Down the Lane.

So. My name’s Clay. I was born at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Roanoke, Virginia, and eventually raised in Richmond. I lived in Virginia for pretty much all my childhood, with a year in North Carolina, before moving up to New York. That’s been home for over twenty years now.

As far as my work is concerned, I’ve been pretty damn fortunate to live a humble existence writing and telling stories in a few different mediums… I get to write fiction, both short stories and novels for readers both young and old, while also writing for comics, film and television, theater and podcasting. It’s been a master-of-none kind of life.

RU: Tell us about Whisper Down the Lane. What is it about, how did you come up with it, and what was it like writing it?

CMC: Whisper Down the Lane is a story told in two different time-lines—one set in 1983 and the other in 2013—and how the moral mania of the Satanic Panic period of the 80s continues to echo out into our contemporary culture. The basic premise is: Sean, five years old, tells a little white lie to his mother. That lie ripples out and effects his family, his friends and classmates at school, the teachers and the administration, on to the community at large and then consuming the rest of the country…

Now, imagine thirty years later, meeting a man named Richard. He’s a newly-married teacher with a stepson. Life is good, until one day, the lies that Sean told decades ago somehow seem to manifest themselves within Richard’s life. The stories Sean made up as a boy are becoming true for Richard.

The past is never quite through with us, I guess you could say, no matter how hard you try to run away.

The idea for Whisper Down the Lane came about when I had a dinnertime conversation with my mother about a particular moment that I remembered from my childhood… that she insisted wasn’t true. It was unnerving to me because the two of us couldn’t reach a consensus point on this specific event that I would’ve sworn was true, but she was pretty emphatic was not. If she was right and this memory wasn’t real, what else about my childhood was I wrong about? What else could I have made up in my imagination? This led me to think a lot about false memory syndrome or repressed memory therapy, which was one of the foundational aspects to the Satanic Panic period… planting the seed for Whisper.

Writing the novel was pretty terrifying, to be honest. I’m not an author who comes to the table with a lot of confidence, and this project in particular always threatened to get away from me. I had very little self-esteem while writing it, essentially working in a constant state of panic… which I think, to a certain extent, actually aided in the paranoia that runs rampant throughout the narrative. Not that I personally recommend writing anything under those conditions.

RU: The story is heavily influenced by the Satanic Panic and the McMartin preschool trials of the 1980s. Do you have any memories of those events and did they have any influence on the book?

CMC: As a child of the 80s, essentially living in a Spielbergian lens flare, I do remember the vaguest hints of Satanic Panic. I definitely didn’t know about the McMartin preschool, but I was certainly entrenched in stranger danger and the vocabulary of the devil… As children, my friends and I were told to always watch out for the white van with no windows that prowled our neighborhood. I vividly remember seeing with my own eyes a spray-painted pentagram on the walls of our neighborhood swimming pool. It was a wild time to be a kid, because our parents essentially let us loose after school to Schwinn throughout the neighborhood with zero supervision… It was amazing we didn’t break our necks or get run over. And yet, there were these warnings from our parents about some ethereal threat: Men we didn’t know who would lure us into their cars with promises of candy or long-haired teens smoking cigarettes and spray-painting pentagrams while listening to heavy metal music. Our parents made boogeymen out the things they were scared of, in order to frighten us into complicity, but I think in an odd way it just made these potential risks feel all the more mythic. This all rooted the writing the novel in a pretty personal place… I got to write about what scared me as a kid. Ozzy Osbourne or the razor blade in the chocolate bar. 

RU: I found the characters and the paranoia that spread among those characters to be very believable. How did you accomplish making these characters and their terror feel so real?

CMC: Well… whew. Thanks for saying that. It’s a huge relief to hear. I’m a big fan of Poe and the unreliable narrator, so for Richard in particular, I wanted to map out the mental trajectory of a narrator losing his mind. You have to start with a sturdy foundation before you can really chisel away at the bedrock below a character like that… so I found myself really having to exercise restraint before going batshit. This book needed to be a slow burn. Lay down the mental/emotional landscape first, then destroy it.

For Sean, which was a more difficult section to write, everything had to be filtered through the perspective of a five-year-old and somehow still feel believable. Writing through a child’s eyes, I feel, can be the kiss of death for a lot of books because the prose itself seems to talk down to the reader, as if they were a child themselves. It’s a tough balance to get the innocence and naiveté to ring true, while also keeping a toe-hold of a narrative that extends beyond the purview of a child… Third person certainly helps.

But here’s the truth: For both Richard and Sean, I’m just writing about things that scare me. I was—to an extent—that kid growing up, so I simply chose to write from a perspective of what frightened me as a boy. Now I’m a dad who’s utterly petrified of sending my sons into this dangerous, terrifying world… so I get to write about that newfound fear of mine. When the horror is personal, when the horror comes home, I think it simply rings true in a way it wouldn’t otherwise.

RU: What was research for the novel like? Did you learn anything that you didn’t already know that surprised you?

CMC: This book was a complete joy to research. I say ‘joy’ and I don’t mean to sound glib. I find the whole period utterly fascinating. I got to read so many amazing books on the subject… I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my most favorite: We Believe the Children by Richard Beck. It’s an absolute must for anyone who’s curious about the Satanic Panic period.

RU: You also have experience in the comics and film industries, among others. Can we maybe look forward to a graphic novel or movie adaptation of Whisper?

CMC: Well… I’d be lying if I didn’t say I would happily sell my soul to the devil for a film (or television) adaptation.

RU: Wouldn’t we all. Now, I know you had a novel accepted by the same publisher as Whisper. Can you tell us anything about that book?

CMC: I can’t say much about the next book quite yet… It’s a ghost story, though, which I’m really excited about. I wanted to write a haunted house story and essentially spent most of my quarantine imbibing as much gothic literature as I could. We’ll see how much of it seeps into the next book, but I’ve got high hopes.

RU: Finally, data to back up my claim that people would be reading/producing a lot of Gothic and haunted house stories during this pandemic (see my initial prediction here).

Anyway, when you’re not writing, what are you doing with your time?

CMC: Those damn kids, man… I’m telling you. Raising children during these uncertain times. I’m just keeping their lung tissue as clean as humanly possible.

RU: For which I wish you the best of luck. I have enough trouble with my own lungs and people not wearing masks around me. Now, what advice would you give other writers, regardless of background or experience?

CMC: It’s an old saw, but it’s honestly the best advice—the only advice—anyone should ever give or follow: You got to put in the time. You got to write. I’ve written so much junk, and I still do… But I have to get it out of my system. I need to exercise the muscle of my imagination in order to exorcise these stories. If I don’t write them out, they just get clogged in my head. Are they all worth reading? Absolutely not. But they won’t be haunting me any longer. I’m free.

RU: I hear that. Final question: if you were stuck on a desert island for a while and could bring only three books with you for entertainment, which ones would you bring?

CMC: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Vice by Ai (or The Collected Poems of Ai). The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass.

Thanks so much for chatting with me! This was a total blast… Looking forward to chatting some more!

RU: Thank you for stopping by. Please let us know when your next book comes out and we’ll get you back on the show!

If you enjoyed this interview, you can check out Clay McLeod Chapman on his website, as well as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Make sure to also check out Whisper Down the Lane (after reading my review, of course). And if you’re an author with something coming out soon and would like to be interviewed, consider sending me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com. If I’m able, we’ll make some magic happen.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’m going to take a walk before I get to work on dinner and watch a movie. Until next time, happy reading, stay safe and pleasant nightmares!

An article I read last year listed this novel as one of the most anticipated horror novels of 2021. Along with the cover and the two-sentence synopsis, I got intrigued and requested my library order copies. They ordered, I was among the first to get a copy from the library, and started reading as soon as possible. Today, I finished the novel, so obviously I’m letting you know what I think.

Based partially on the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s,* Whisper Down the Lane takes place in 1983 and 2013. In 1983, young Sean Crenshaw finds himself in the spotlight when he tells his mother that his kindergarten teacher has been abusing him and his classmates, as well as is part of a Satanic cult. As the local community and the country at large is swept up in terror, nobody realizes Sean is holding in a much more explosive secret.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Richard Bellamy is teaching art at a prestigious elementary school. However, strange incidents are occurring in the school and in town, and they all seem to link back to Sean’s past. What most don’t realize, however, is that Sean and Richard have a connection. And the events of one are influencing the other.

I had a lot of fun with this novel. Chapman does an excellent job of showing the mindsets of the young, naïve Sean, who views what’s going on as playing a game (Tell the Adults What They Want to Hear), and Richard, who initially narrates with plenty of sarcasm and levity but slowly starts incorporating darker, more serious language into his sections of the story. You not only start to believe in these characters, but really feel for them as they go through various troubles.

I also liked how Chapman taps into the birth and spread of paranoia while still telling a story. Again, it’s so believable reading how paranoia spreads among the characters in the 1980s and how they start to become convinced of Satanists abusing their children. Adding to this sense of believability are sections written as transcripts between Sean and Kinderman, a psychologist who is interviewing victims. Those sections really reflect how things likely happened during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, and shows how much research Chapman did.

Richard’s own dark feelings, including paranoia, are also written very realistically. It was powerful and heartbreaking getting into his head and seeing how events were affecting his mental state.

The only problems I really had with the story were that certain plot elements were predictable, at least for me. That being said, there were plenty of surprises throughout the story, and I can forgive a little predictability (a lot is where i draw the line).

On a scale of 1 to 5, I award Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman a 4.3. Written with strong characterization and emotion, you’ll believe you’re reading about actual people with actual fears. Grab a copy, put on your favorite 80s music, and settle in. Once you start, you’ll find it hard to put the book down.

*Which, by the way, kicked off way too early. I wasn’t born till the 1990s and the insidious network of devoted acolytes to my evil didn’t crop up till the mid-2010s.