Coming off my Bouchercon 2022 high, where I got to hang with some of the best people on the planet, I am so pleased to be uploading this chat with Dan Malmon. Who, yes, is one of those best people I just got to see in person. From the moment I heard he and his wife Kate were editing an anthology in which all the stories had to kill him off, I knew that they were my people. I was correct about that.
So, friends, grab your coffee or tea or vodka and read on to discover all the things that terrify Dan Malmon. And that fierce (but incredibly adorable) doggie that will protect him.
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
A few years ago (Maybe more? Time has been really weird the last few years.), my wife Kate and I were visiting friends in Chicago. One of our very favorite cities. Great food, great folks. While out seeing the sights, we decided to go to the Willis Tower/Sears Tower. To get to the observation deck, you must go through a long cattle line. We were just packed in there, with no room to move. After a period of slow, shuffling movement, the line just stopped. Everyone grumbled and waited for the line to move again. No biggie. But for me, the room started to spin. Cold sweats, shortness of breath. I haven’t ever really cared about close quarters before, but at that moment there was no greater need in the world than to get the hell out of there. Not gonna lie, that freaked me out badly.
Once we got to the top, I was fine. The tower has these clear plastic enclosures that extend out from the building. You can step inside and it’s as if you are floating in midair, high above the city. I was first in line: I knew in my heart of hearts that this was something I had to do. That if I chickened out here, I would regret it forever. I paid for the ticket, now it was time to take the ride. I finally got to the front of the line, and I thought to myself “HERE GOES…!” And I stepped out over the line from sturdy floor to clear plastic cubicle… and it was the greatest thing ever.
That being said, my palms were sweating as I was typing all of this.
“I knew if I chickened out here, I would regret it forever.”
Do you believe in ghosts?
Probably? I haven’t encountered any, but I’m not saying no. I have friends that swear that they have stayed in haunted hotels. The stories they tell are freaky as hell. But I honestly get more chills from going back to childhood neighborhoods, driving past your old schools. Those are the ghosts that you carry with you, and they are always around.
What is your greatest fear as an editor?
My greatest fear when we were putting out KILLING MALMON was that people wouldn’t see past the gag and see the exceptional work that we were showcasing in the book. The hook was simple, “Somewhere in your story, a character named Dan Malmon must die. The story can be scary, funny, happy, or sad, but somewhere in the story he’s gotta die.” It was a fun premise that opened the door to tons of different stories. People seemed to like it, and the experience was incredible. But I was worried that the public would think of it solely as a gag and ignore the quality of the stories inside. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?
The Omen and The Exorcist. I’m not religious but there’s something about those films.
Kudos to EQMM, which has four stories on the list of finalists! Here’s the list:
Hector Acosta — “Turistas” (Down & Out Books)
Michael Cowgill — “Call Me Chuckles” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Tara Laskowski — “The Long-Term Tenant” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Lia Matera — “Snow Job” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
Twist Phelan — “Fathers-in-Law” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
I don’t often like my short stories after they’ve been published–I mean, I like them ok, but I mostly just see errors or things I could’ve fixed. But I’m particularly proud of “The Long-Term Tenant,” and I’m so pleased that it’s been recognized in this way. It was a really fun story to write–I’ve always found the desert a spooky place where anything can happen.
Whenever I hear Adam Meyer talk about his stories, I am immediately interested. Maybe it’s the screenwriter in him, but he’s got a great talent for reducing down a plot line into a great pitch that hooks you in. I’ve bought several anthologies just because I heard what Adam’s story was about and wanted to read it.
Therefore, of course, I wanted to find out what creeps him out, since he does a pretty great job of creeping his readers out. Read on to find out…
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
For a long time, one of my greatest fears was public
speaking. I can still remember standing up for the 4th grade
spelling bee and being barely able to speak, let alone spell! This fear stayed
with me into adulthood, and in my early thirties I decided to conquer it by
trying the scariest thing I could think of: standup comedy.
I took a class with a professional standup, and we worked on
our routines over several weeks. At the end we were supposed to do ten minutes
in front of an audience, and I almost bailed. But my classmates and teacher
were so supportive, and I practiced like crazy, and when the time came, I did
my ten minutes and had a blast.
I’ve done standup a few times since, and it’s always
terrifying and usually great fun. But when I get up in front of a group of
people to talk about writing? It doesn’t really scare me, not anymore.
What are your
Claustrophobia is my big one! It doesn’t often come up, but
sometimes I’ll be in the backseat of a car or on a long bus ride and before I
know it, whoa! I feel like the walls are closing in, and my heart races, and
I’m white-knuckling it the whole way.
My other phobia is dogs. The neighborhood where I grew up in
New York City sat against this huge stretch of wild marsh. My parents had
forbid us from going in there, so naturally my little brother and I went in
there all the time! These wild dogs would roam around, and I can remember one barking
fiercely and chasing after us. In retrospect, this scraggly mutt was probably more
scared of us than we were of him, but the fear I felt that day has stayed with
These wild dogs would roam around, and I can remember one barking fiercely and chasing after us.
What is your
greatest fear as a writer?
Like almost every writer I know, I fear the blank page. Starting
a project always scares me, even if I have a good sense of where it’s going. What
if it’s no good? What if I run out of ideas midway? What if people read it and
think it sucks?
After the first few pages, that fear usually drops to a low
murmur. But as much as I fear beginnings, I also fear endings, especially on
longer projects. What if I can’t stick the landing. And what’s the next project
going to be?
All of this said, I like to be scared when I write—that’s
how I know I’m challenging myself, and that’s where the fun lies.
scariest thing you’ve ever written?
My first novel, The
Last Domino. There’s nothing supernatural in it, but it’s about a school
shooting and is told from the point of view of the perpetrator and his best
friend. I remember writing the scene late in the novel where the shooting
unfolds—I did it several times, throwing it away and starting over.
The last time, I put myself into a kind of trance, imagining
myself in that school with bullets flying. It all seemed so real that I wrote
down what I felt and saw and that was the version that made it into the final
A colleague told me that when his teenage daughter read it,
she was traumatized … which I feel badly about, and also take as a compliment. My
own daughter is seven now and she’s asked when she can read The Last Domino. My wife told her not until
she’s sixteen. I say when she graduates college … maybe.
scariest movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?
I can remember so many from when I was a kid, maybe only ten
or twelve years old. In Search Of,
hosted by Leonard Nimoy, is a favorite. The stories of ghosts and aliens were
all supposedly true and that added to the delicious scariness.
I also remember my brother and I had a babysitter who’d let
us stay up late on Sarturday nights to watch Tales from the Darkside. The opening titles alone were terrifying!
Later, I watched the original Halloween on VHS in our neighbor’s basement. The masked face of
Michael Myers, the eerily repetitive John Carpenter score. I was terrified and
But the absolute scariest thing I remember watching as a kid
was A Nightmare on Elm Street. Those images
of Freddy Krueger have stayed with me for over thirty years now, and if I put
on that DVD late at night, chances are I’ll have nightmares. But so worth it,
because I still love that movie.
How do you deal
For years, I was terrified of the dentist. Sitting in that
oversized chair, feeling the scrape of metal on my teeth, hearing the whine of
the drill …
This is a somewhat common fear—Marathon Man, after all—but I took it seriously. I long avoided the
dentist whenever possible, and when I finally had to deal with some problem
teeth, I vowed to face my fear instead of running from it.
What I did was learn to meditate. It’s a great tool. Incredibly simple, but it’s been a lifesaver for me, and I use it in almost any situation where fear comes up—including at the dentist’s office, where I now go for regular checkups. Of course, it helps that my current dentist is a super nice guy … and looks nothing like Laurence Olivier.
Adam Meyer is a fiction writer and screenwriter. His
latest short stories appear in the anthologies Crime Travel, the Joni Mitchell-inspired The Beat of Black Wings, and Seascape:
Best New England Crime 2019. He’s written several true-crime TV series and
TV movies, including the upcoming film Deadly
Ransom. He’s also the author of the novel The Last Domino and is currently finishing his second novel, Missing Rachel.
My husband, Art Taylor, is one of the most stable, rational, smart people I know. So I was excited to read his responses here, since I always wondered what rattles him (besides eyeballs…I know that from watching horror movies with him).
We’re also celebrating the release this month of Art’s much-anticipated collection of stories, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, which you can buy right here. The collection includes all his award-winning stories, including “English 398: Fiction Workshop,” which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2019.
Let’s see what he has to say about fear.
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
Like a lot of kids, I was always one who stared suspiciously at the closet door or at the tree outside my bedroom window (one of the reasons why the movie Poltergeist impacted me so strongly). But beyond those common fears, one memory jumped immediately to mind as soon as I read this question.
Woods and fields backed up against the small neighborhood where I grew up in Richlands, North Carolina, and the boys next door and my brother and I spent a lot of our days tromping around out there—exploring the wilderness, cutting down small trees with our axes and machetes, building forts. One day, some group of us were climbing over a fallen tree by a small creek, and after I jumped from the trunk back to the ground, I turned around and saw that I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down. The other boys still up on the tree trunk urged me on in different directions. Just step away slowly! Just jump back as fast as you can! Neither extreme seemed appealing—and so I just stood there, waiting for… what? I didn’t know. Petrified is the word that stands out—not only as a synonym for fear but also because I felt completely frozen, like I shouldn’t, couldn’t, move. Finally, one of the other boys crept up behind the hole and quickly covered it with the flat part of his own machete. But that snake’s eyes…. I remember them well.
Side note: Those fields and those boys next door were part of the inspiration for “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74”—though this specific memory wasn’t included in the story.
Do you have a recurring nightmare?
For many years, I dreamed pretty regularly about tidal waves—with one or two specific images recurring: either a large wave rising high toward a tall building on the coast (as if I was an onlooker to what was happening) or else water crashing against the downstairs of my family’s house at the beach, pushing through the windows, flooding everything, and me in the middle of it all this time, fighting not to drawn in the onrush.
I’m not sure why these images have haunted me so consistently. Something about loss of control maybe, of being overwhelmed? There’s definitely a helplessness I felt whenever the nightmare hit.
I’d landed near a snake hole—with a snake’s head peeking out, suddenly staring me down.
How do you deal with fear?
Take a deep breath, and push through as best I can. Hope for the best. Be ready for the worst.
When I was in elementary school, I became inordinately panicked about a doctor’s visit—crazy upset with fear about having to get a shot, crying, thrashing around, even to the point of almost fighting against my pediatrician. Rose Pully was her name—a legend really in our part of North Carolina—and Dr. Pully wrestled me to the exam table one visit when I was upset about a booster shot, held me tight, looked me straight in the eye, and told me, firmly, sternly: “When it hurts, you can cry all you want. But until then, until it actually hurts, you don’t cry, you understand?”
Her words—the sternness behind them—startled me into silence. And those words have stayed with me these many decades later. (I’ve told this story to our son over the years as well, and now he quotes it back to me as well.)
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
When you first read my story “Parallel Play,” you told me two things: You thought it was the best story I’d ever written, and you never, ever wanted to read it again. At its core, “Parallel Play” is about being a parent, protecting a child, and how far you’d go to protect your child. Would you die for your child? Would you…?
I have to admit that I didn’t realize myself how disturbing the story was—not until you told me. (Not sure this is the kind of “scariest” you meant with the question, Tara, but….)
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?
In my teen years, I went through a period where I read everything I could by Stephen King—and Pet Sematary troubled me to no end. The idea of love and loss and grief and wanting to get your loved one back—and then getting your wish, but not how you expected. Completely engrossing, and ultimately scare-me-senseless horrific.
Who is the best villain, fictional or in real life?
As I’m writing this, a news alert just popped up that the Trump administration is proposing changing school menus to allow more potatoes and pizza and fewer vegetables and fruits—and it crossed my mind that his particular brand of villainy too often seems like caricature, parody, an Onion article: Dastardly Dan stroking his mustache.
More seriously: I’m gonna skip the more villainous villains (Darth Vader, Hannibal, Voldemort) and go with Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s novels. Protagonist? Villain? Ripley’s a complex and compelling figure. As Tom says in the brilliant movie adaptation in 1999 (played there by Matt Damon), “whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.”
What’s worse: closed-in spaces or heights? Why?
I know you expect me to say heights because I have such tremendous anxiety about them; between atrium hotels and some hiking adventures that have taken us too close to cliff-side, I’ve had more opportunities for that fear to show itself. But it completely ruins me to read a story or see a movie where someone is buried alive in a box—that’s truly terrifying.
What’s worse: clowns or spiders? Why?
Clowns. They thrive on being unpredictable, and too often an undercurrent of madness or malice shimmers beneath all that face paint, no matter how wide the smile. (Don’t get me started on Stephen King’s It.)
ART TAYLOR is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, to be published February 28. His previous book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and several Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University.
This past weekend I attended my first Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland. I’d been to the Agatha Award banquet dinners in the past — cheering on my husband Art Taylor as a nominee (and four-time winner!) of the Agatha, but this was my first time attending the full conference.
I’ve heard often from regular attendees that Malice is a family, but I never truly understood what they meant by that until this weekend. So many wonderful people have been so kind to me in small and big ways, and that generosity is so amazing. Like all families, there are, of course, some moments of disagreements or bickering, but overall, Malice has always felt very warm and welcoming, and as a debut writer, I’ve never appreciated that more.
Art and I brought our son Dash with us, and while he wasn’t the only child there, he was certainly in the minority, and yet everyone eagerly accepted him into the fold. We had a babysitter (THANK YOU, AVERY!) watching over him, but at times it felt as though we had hundreds of people watching over him. And us, too! During one panel, Art got a text message from someone saying, “I have your name badge!” Turns out Art had lost the name tag in his badge without even realizing it, but he had it back, safe and sound, before the panel was even over.
This year was also my first Agatha nomination — for Best Short Story — so both that was both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking, I’ll admit. And yet, once I got into the swing of things and started to feel that warmth, I realized that no matter what, everything was going to be just fine.
The weekend was a whirlwind, as all good conferences are, but here are some highlights:
My first Malice panel on short stories, with fellow nominees Leslie Budewitz, Susanna Calkins, Barb Goffman and my husband Art Taylor, moderated by the wonderful Michael Bracken. I got to talk a bit about Dash entering his first writing contest (which embarrassed and excited him, apparently).
Lunch with my Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine editor Linda Landrigan. It was so great to catch up with her. Later in the weekend, I also got to record an audio reading of my very first AHMM publication, “The Monitor,” which I’ll link to here when it goes live!
Talking with new friends and old. I’m sure I’ll forget someone, so I don’t want to even attempt to name names, but I love love love you all!
Author signing on Saturday morning, where I got to sign the very first copies of the advance readers of One Night Gone!!
The Agatha banquet! Although I spent the majority of it super nervous, it was truly an honor and a delight to find out I was tied with Leslie Budewitz as a winner of the Agatha for Best Short Story! What an amazing experience! I have my own teapot now! Also, massive congratulations to all the winners this year: Ellen Byron, Sujata Massey, Dianne Freeman, Shari Randall, Cindy Callaghan, and Jane Cleland!
Now it’s back to (boring) reality again. But, can’t wait for next year!
I am thrilled to announce that Bystanders has won the Balcones Fiction Prize, which is awarded by Austin Community College to an outstanding book of fiction published in 2016. My book was among stellar finalists–Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Heirlooms by Rachel Hall, Landfall by Julie Hensley, and Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy–and I’m humbled to be in their company.
Final judge Amanda Eyre Ward had this to say about Bystanders:
“Her stories pulsed with energy and excitement, like small lightning storms on the page. I was constantly surprised by her characters, and finished the book wishing there were more. I think she is a real talent–original and vibrant–and I’m excited to celebrate her work.”
Past winners of the prize have included Margaret Malone’s People Like You, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark, Douglas Trevor’s Girls I Know, Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners, Katherine Karlin’s Send Me Work, and Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate.
Thanks so much to Joe O’Connell and everyone in the creative writing department at ACC for your support. Thanks also to SFWP publisher Andrew Gifford for taking a chance on Bystanders.
I’m looking forward to visiting Austin next year, where I’m told the Museum of the Weird is a must-see destination for those of us who appreciate all things creepy.
Once upon a time I thought of a title for a story: “The Etiquette of Adultery.” I liked that title so much that I wrote it down on a piece of paper and carried it around in my wallet with me for about a year. One day I decided to write the story, wondering what an etiquette guide for adultery would really look like. I sent it off to Necessary Fiction, and editor Steve Himmer wrote a nice note back saying he loved the concept but thought I should expand the story a bit more.
That note made sense to me and sparked something inside me that became the catalyst for this book. An editor’s job is mostly thankless–I know, having edited SmokeLong for almost seven years now–but I also don’t think that editors often realize how much impact a kind, encouraging, honest rejection letter can have on a writer. Sometimes a sentence or two or a quick suggestion can help solidify an idea or start someone off on another path with a story. In this case, Steve’s note didn’t just help make “Adultery” a better story, but it also started me on the trail of a series of etiquette stories, which eventually created a book.
The thing is, the stories were so very fun to write. Most of them teeter on the edge of flash-fiction-length–the longest story tips just over 2,000 words, I believe–and the form allowed me to play around with all sorts of fun experiments, creating an unofficial guide to our darker selves.
The first edition of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons was published by Matter Press in 2012. It sold out of its print run and was only available as an ebook for the last few years, but now–now!–my friends, it’s back. And cuter than ever.
The newly revised Modern Manners, published by Santa Fe Writers Project, includes two new etiquette stories (“The Etiquette of Voyeurism” and “The Etiquette of Gossip”) and comes in paperback in an adorable, stuff-it-in-your-pocket size.
Here are some kind things folks have said about it:
“Sly, clever, original take on the sad, bewildering, dead-on truths of being human.”
— Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life and Together We Can Bury It
“The anxiety-ridden instructees of Laskowski’s stories tap dance their way through various awkward situations ranging from adultery to dementia. It’s fun to laugh at them, but by the end of each story, you can’t quite remember why you thought they were so dumb in the first place; these characters have problems and deal with their problems with dignity. Each of these stories start out in a sarcastic vein, yet the problems they address are heartbreaking, and each and every one of them realizes a protagonist, fully formed, with a past, a present, and a future.”
— L.W. Compton The Collagist
I’ll also be celebrating Modern Manners‘ birthday at the AWP conference Feb. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. Check out my events page for more information about readings and panels and things. Hope to see you and your inner demons soon!