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Nicola and I had the pleasure to interview author Joel Sutherland a few weeks back. Mr. Sutherland has written many of the Haunted Canada books, and other horror stories such as Summer’s End. He also told us in his interview about being on Wipeout Canada!

Here are some highlights about his writing process:

What do you think makes a good story? (Follow up: are there some genres you find easier to write than others?)

The most important thing for me is, although I write about monsters, the important thing is to ground the story in reality. I give my characters real-world problems to deal with, in addition to ghosts and monsters. I put a lot of issues in Summer’s End that I also dealt with in high school, for example. I thought back a lot to when I was that age, going through stuff like moving to a new place and wanting to make friends. Essentially, I added storylines to make the story more realistic and believable. I think it’s really important, no matter what genre, to do your world-building but still, ground it in reality. 

Your books fit pretty well into the horror genre, and we were wondering, what authors or books do you draw inspiration from, horror authors or otherwise? 

Stephen King is kind of a given. Also, I’m a big fan of any Canadian horror author, but there aren’t a lot of us, really. We’re all very nice friendly people… Marina Cohen, for example, who’s written The Doll’s Eye. And Adrienne Kress who writes in all kinds of genres… fantasy, contemporary but most recently is writing bendy books for Scholastic that are super creepy. Marty Chan as well, I’m a big fan of. He’s from Calgary, I believe. He just wrote a really creepy book, I believe it’s called Haunted Hospital. He’s a really good writer. Like I said, there aren’t too many of us, some others as well… We’re a small but creepy bunch. 

Why horror? 

I’ll try and give you the Reader’s Digest version because I could talk about this horror and my love of horror all day long. [laughter] When I was really young, two of my earliest and vividiest memories… I was four when my parents first took me to Disney world. And the thing I remember is the haunted mansion ride, I remember it like it was yesterday. And when I went back as an adult, I was like yup. Sometimes childhood memories get distorted, you know, but the haunted mansion ride was exactly the same. Obviously it left a big impression, I absolutely loved it. And, about the same time, my second memory… at about the same time Ghostbusters came out. Because of my two older brothers, I got taken to a lot more creepy movies than a typical four year old would. So yeah, I watched a lot of Ghostbusters. My brothers were a bit concerned but I totally loved it. Ended up watching it hundreds of times after. And I also loved reading horror, of course. 

Then I got older, and started to consider writing more seriously. I always loved writing, but I never considered doing it professionally… It was just something I did, like playing video games or bike riding. When I was around university age, I was still writing a lot. I was writing short stories and thought, you know what, I should send these out for publication. And of course, they were horror stories that I was writing… I think because over the years, I had read and watched so much horror… It felt kind of natural.

And, to be completely honest, I’d love to write fantasy but imagine having to spend years doing all the planning… all the maps, backstories, languages, names and the characters… and I thought I just want to do some writing, you know? So I thought I could still do some of those elements with a horror genre instead. I can create a lot and do speculative writing.

So I started doing it and it felt very natural and it was fun, which is another thing, too. Horror stories are so much fun for me. I’ve never been ‘scared’ exactly, and I’m not saying this to sound tough because I’m not… but I feel safe and scared at the same time, which is very fun. 

It’s interesting you mention jump scares because I just thought about how they are used in horror movies but the fact is you can’t do jump scares in a book… What are your techniques or tips for writing horror stories then, or the book equivalent of jump scares?

Yeah, that’s kind of funny you know how they do jump scares in movies. There’s always a fake jump scare, like a cat jumping out or… Then there is the loud noise and eerie music playing. You can’t really do that in a book. It’s tough to sort of put it into words how to do that, or the technique. I just put a new YA novel that my agent is currently spinning to publishers and… one of the things she said she loved about the book is that I put multiple jump scares. It’s so hard to make a jump scare and you’ve got multiple… How do you actually do it, though [laughter] I can’t say I have thought much about that. I’d say the secret is to plant the seed, to foreshadow things that might happen… like make sure the character knows there’s a creepy closet in the room, for example, or make sure the audience knows something feels off. This way they’ve got a picture in their mind. 

Then, for the jump scare, I’d make it so the character is having a conversation… you know just doing something mundane in general. This way, their mind and thoughts are wrapped in their real-life issues then they turn around and something is right there, in front of them. Then you cut the scene and end the chapter with a cliffhanger. 

That’s something I haven’t mentioned: R. L. Stine, who’s written Goosebumps amongst many others, talks about how it’s very important to end every chapter in a cliffhanger. He says in interviews that it got harder and harder as he’s written hundreds of these books, but he always made a point of ending each chapter in a cliffhanger. That is, I think, the closest you can get to a jump scare in a book.

It was a pleasure to interview Joel Sutherland, and I especially enjoyed all the spooky stories he had to share. We wish him the best in all future endeavours—creepy or otherwise!