Exclusive Interview: David Bergantino
Author David Bergantino penned the novel adaptation for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and four of the Tales of Terror novels for Tor Books. Fellow Elm Street fan Richard Mullenax submitted the first part of this interview. Published on his website, he was kind enough to let it be shared here. The second part is our exclusive interview with David where he answers some additional questions about the Nightmare series, writing professionally and more.
Interview by Richard Mullenax
What do Freddy Krueger and Zorro have in common besides for slicing and dicing things with shiny pointed instruments? Give up? They’ve both been authored by Mr. Scary David Bergantino. David has done everything from writing novels to producing video games. In this interview, Dave will talk about his past novels along with his new upcoming teen horror novel. This is a must for Freddy Krueger fans!
Richard Mullenax: Could you tell us about your latest book called Hamlet 2?
Hamlet II: Ophelia’s Revenge, is the first in a three-book series called Bard’s Blood that I am writing for Simon & Schuster’s Pocketbooks division. At the moment, they are due to start coming out in the spring of 2003, though this could change between now and then. Basically, the books are (take a deep breath) modern teen horror sequels to Shakespeare plays. They are set in modern times in the Ohio college town of Stratford and the college campus of Globe University. The books are sequels in that they are not simply modern adaptations of the works, like West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, but follow the action, albeit centuries later, of the plays, and feature some of the same characters, their descendents or their ghosts. For example, Cameron Dean in Hamlet 2 is a descendent of the original Prince of Denmark. Other characters are analogous to characters from the plays. For example, the original characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet are represented by two dorky freshman, Rosenberg and Gyllenhal. In Hamlet II, Ophelia rises from her swampy grave, angry when Cameron, whose body contains her Hamlet’s soul, professes his love for his girlfriend on a tower at Castle Elsinore, which he has inherited. Ophelia got such bad advice from everyone from in her time, which eventually drove her crazy enough to drown herself, that the prospect of Hamlet finding true love when she was denied really gets her ghostly goat. So, until she can claim Hamlet’s soul for herself, neither Cameron and his girlfriend Sofia, nor anyone else in Castle Elsinore, will be allowed to experience true love. In fact, if Ophelia gets her way, no one will live much longer while she’s around! The next two books are A Midsummer Night’s Scream and Romeo & Juliet II: Love from Beyond the Grave. The books are a lot of fun to write, will be targeted for college and up readers and since it’s an original series of my own (unlike my past books which have been parts of series or have involved other people’s characters, like Freddy Krueger) I get to pretty much write what I want. I get to make up the rules, and the books get pretty wacky. They’ll be as funny as they are scary. Hopefully! I’m interested to see how people receive them.
RM: Who and what inspired you to become an author?
Good question. I don’t know exactly. But I’ve always enjoyed making up stories, particularly scary stories. When I was young, I was into ghosts and UFO’s and Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Saturday afternoons and Friday nights I was always glued to the TV watching reruns of forties and fifties monster movies. My parents took me to my first horror movies, a double bill of The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and Sssssss when I was pretty young. So, with all that, I grew to want to write” books, movies, whatever “and to scare people! I was also always an avid reader, both of horror fiction “cheesy drugstore pulp stuff” and of “real” books about ghosts and strange phenomena. The scariest stuff was that which was most “real” to me. Which is why, ultimately, Stephen King’s Carrie really got me into him as an author and of the creative possibilities of writing. That book wasn’t a straightforward “novel” it was a collection of interviews, articles and documentary materials that treated a completely unreal subject, such as a telekinetic girl destroying a town, as a news story, not just as a work of fiction. That made it much more engaging than if it were a standard narrative. I didn’t think about it at the time, but you could see the influence of this in my novelization of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, although obviously it was more directly inspired by the pseudo-documentary nature of the movie itself. Still, the movie was a straightforward story, albeit with everyone playing themselves, and the book used a lot of diary entries, newspaper articles, notes and such to tell the story of me writing the book. Before that, I wrote a still-unpublished book on the Friday the 13th movies, presenting them as if a famous British film historian were writing sage commentary. You can tell how much I like this style. So you see, even non-fiction authors inspire me because of the information they present and way it is presented as factual—although even the most “objective” books and articles still have some sort of perspective coloring them so that two people writing about the same “true” event might come up with different information. But to present fictional information as if it were fact, with some underlying “real information” behind it to make things plausible, that makes things even scarier, [because] in the back of your mind, you’re saying to yourself, “Gee, this could ACTUALLY happen!” Michael Crichton, though far from my favorite author, uses this time and again for his novels. He takes an iota of truth about cloning, or physics or technology and builds a world around it that’s utterly fantastical, but founded on something quite real. Specifically, my favorite author has always been Stephen King. Obviously, he writes horror, but besides that, his ideas come from elaborations of human experience, rather than scientific fact. Misery, for example, is an extreme case of what happens when a fan is too much of a fan, and in a larger sense, the life of a writer. King is also a very good writer, who writes for people who aren’t very good readers. He’s a non-pretentious, populist author, which is why his books sell so well. But he’s not a schlock author, either. Peter Straub is also one of my favorite writers—in fact, I think Ghost Story is the best American horror novel ever. He’s much more of a “literate” author than King, much more structured, and when he’s on a groove, very very scary. But in some ways, I think he’s a better writer than the readers of the genre want, so except for Black House, his recent sequel to The Talisman with Stephen King, he’s been out of the main main stream since the eighties.
RM: How did you get into writing the Elm Street Novels? Was it something you always wanted to write about or was it something that was handed down to you as a job and you graciously accepted it?
I came to Freddy by way of Jason. I had written a book on the Friday the 13th series that I came close to getting a deal on, and then things fell through. Still trying to sell it, I got in contact with Paramount, who had released the first eight Jason movies. By then, New Line had picked up the series, and Jason Goes to Hell was due out the following year. I went broke and returned to Cleveland, calling around to New Line, whose licensing person was intrigued by my pseudo-documentary concept. He referred me to their “book packager”; basically an agent who matches licenses with publishers and then hires the writers. We tried a bit, but she couldn’t sell the book. Still, she and New Line were impressed enough by my writing and ideas, and personal presentation, that they asked if I would be interested in writing the book for the next Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. They thought I was perfect because it was sort of a documentary. So, they gave me the script, and based on that, I wrote three versions of a sample first chapter “one that was a straightforward novelization (which the book publisher wanted), one that was a “scrapbook,” made up of entirely “documentary” material like newspaper articles, etc. (which New Line wanted) and a version that combined the two, alternating between the story of the movie and diary pages of my own laced with documentary material. Every[one] agreed upon this version and they hired me! As a side note, it is the least “edited” of any book I’ve written. Only one paragraph was substantially changed, and that was simply because I referenced a non-New Line movie. Other than that, the book is almost EXACTLY the book I wrote.
RM: When writing the Wes Craven’s New Nightmare novelization… Did you ever talk to Horror Master Wes Craven and if so, [what] was it like to speak with Freddy Krueger’s creator?
I did not talk to Wes Craven while I wrote the book. My only “contact” with him was that whenever there was a new draft of the script (I was writing the book as they were shooting the movie), I would get the new draft so I could work the changes into my manuscript. Still, I had to get the book done long before the movie was finished and you’ll see that the ending of the book differs somewhat from the ending of the movie. I did, however, get to meet Wes at a screening of New Nightmare and we talked for a half-hour. I gave him a signed copy of the book and he eventually gave me a signed copy of the movie poster. In all, Wes is not the scary guy you might think; he’s just a nice guy from Cleveland with a vivid imagination. Yes, he is originally from Euclid. I met Clive Barker for the first time at that screening too. He’s also a nice, rational, normal guy. Something about being that grounded allows you to write about funky stuff without losing your own perspective on life.
RM: Which novels was the most fun for you? New Nightmare? The Elm Street Novels? Bone Chillers? Zorro? Hamlet 2?
New Nightmare was the most fun, because again, I was writing EXACTLY what I wanted to, and it was different from your average novelization. Also, the Bone Chillers book, A Terminal Case of the Uglies, was a lot of fun because it was an adaptation of a short story I had written in high school. Plus, I named the characters after my brother’s family; the main character, Eric Adam Ross, is named after my three nephews. The only novel that was a chore was Zorro and that was my fault. I was having writer’s block and wasn’t connecting with the material the way I did the Freddy stuff, although in the end, it turned out okay, I guess. Still, I was supposed write a second Zorro novel, but gave it up, fearing I was going to do a poor job. So, I made it up to everyone (hopefully!) by introducing my editor to a friend of mine who’s an even more prolific writer than me, John Whitman, who wrote the Star Wars Galaxy of Fear series. He ended up writing the third book in the Zorro series and everyone was quite happy with his work.
RM: Tell the readers what else you do besides for writing books.
Other than writing novels, I write, produce and design video games. I’ve worked for Disney, the Jim Henson Company, and in a freelance capacity through my own company, called Primal, Inc. I’ve worked for lots and lots of other companies doing various things in the video game business. I also write scripts. I’ve adapted a Japanese horror CG animated series called Gregory Horror Show for an LA-based animation company and that’s being shot right now in Japan. I’m hoping to get a film going this year, I have a script and a few stories out, but that’s the other field I’d like to do. I’ve written, designed and produced websites as well.
RM: Do you have any tips or advice for marketing books?
Authors rarely have any say in or anything at all to do with the marketing of their books. What I did for New Nightmare, however, was walk into book stores and tell staff that I was the author of the book. After showing them my driver’s license to prove I was who I said I was, I would sign the books in the store (there were rarely more than 5 copies), the staff would sticker them “Signed By The Author” and place them on the front counter. Book stores love to have signed copies of books. And obviously, placed on the front counter with big stickers on them, rather than tucked in the stacks, the books sold. Other than that, the only thing you can really do is cultivate word-of-mouth. If you write in a particular genre, like horror as I do, or deal with cult heroes such as Zorro or Freddy, you can also look for fan websites for these characters or genre, contact the webmasters and see if they’d be interested in doing something like this, an interview, or anything else to target fans about your book.
RM: Any advice for hungry writers?
Write. Then write more. Then keep writing until you write “The End” on something. Write not because of all the money you’re gonna make, but because you NEED to write, it would physically impair you not to. Write because you have something to tell the world. And get the entire book, script or whatever out of your system entirely and down on paper. Don’t go back and edit until you are done. If you keep tinkering with stuff as you go along, you may have a perfect fifteen pages and never finish the other 200 or so that would make it a publishable book. Writing is re-writing so just expect as part of the process you will need to overhaul what you’re written. Once you’ve done so, and are ready to submit it to a publisher or agent, expect to be judged, expect for others not to share your vision or even like it too much. Some may be right, but not everyone will be; there are so many factors that go into whether an agent or editor likes a book besides the basic technical aspects of the writing, the book might be wrong for a particular publisher in terms of their market (like trying to pitch a horror novel to a romance publisher), timing might not be right in the marketplace for the genre of book written, and on down to the editor/agent having a bad day or just not liking a particular genre. Just be prepared—listen to constructive comments, if people are kind enough to give them, which they aren’t always, but don’t let it derail you if you get a negative response”submit it elsewhere, write another book, keep going if your goal is to be a writer. If you do have a manuscript and are not sure what to do next, I’d suggest getting the Writer’s Market books, found at book stores. It contains advice on query letters and manuscript formats, as well as lists of agents, publishers and the types of works they represent or publish so you are targeting the right people with the right material presented in the proper fashion. Creative writing classes are also good because usually the teacher is some sort of published author, so you can get day-to-day feedback on the writing of your book and when it’s all over, he may have recommendations for you as to where to send your manuscript. One important fact of life to keep in mind is that you will very rarely (I’d say never, but I got lucky in this regard, so there are always exceptions) sell a fiction novel based on any less than the full manuscript. Publishers want to know you can actually finish a book and most people, even those who claim they are writers, don’t have the patience to actually write two-hundred plus pages, let alone write them well. So only approach publishers and agents with complete novels, not just the first few chapters. You can, however, submit a few chapters and an outline if the book is non-fiction, as my unpublished Friday the 13th book was. It followed a format that was duplicated in each chapter, so writing the first half of the book was enough to get people to look at it. The only reason I got hired for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare without ever having written a complete fictional novel was because half of my Friday the 13th book alone was over 400 pages! Plus, it was a novelization and not my own original idea because it would be based on the script, no one had to wonder what would happen in the end, even with my pseudo-documentary embellishments. So I got lucky in that regard, but I still had demonstrated my writing ability and my ability to follow through, inasmuch as I pursued trying to get the Friday the 13th book published for two years and found the right people to talk to in order to do it. So in short. Write. Finish what you are writing. Rewrite it. Research the submission process and the proper places to submit it. And be prepared for rejection. Also be prepared for things to work out in ways you didn’t expect, despite all your research and planning. Then, enjoy the success when it happens!
NOES Companion: Were you a fan of the Nightmare series before you began work on the novels? Do you have a favorite film?
David Bergantino: Oh yeah. After seeing the first movie at a midnight showing, I saw each subsequent movie opening weekend. As I did with every other major horror series, like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and just about any other scary movie that was released. Well, as you might expect, the first one is my favorite and stands apart from the rest of the series, as most first movies stand apart from sequels. It was purely conceived, not as a franchise, but as this supremely creepy tale where the boogeyman had a voice for the first time. But of the sequels, I’d probably go with The Dream Master. It took the idea of the Dream Warriors, which never quite fulfilled its potential of being something like The X-Men vs. Freddy, concentrated all the superpowers into one character and had the satisfying big battle ending the previous film lacked. Dream Child is pretty good, too. I’m not a big fan of the second film or Freddy’s Dead.
Did you try to incorporate any of your personal dreams/nightmares or real life events when writing the Tales of Terror novels?
Er, no. I have dreams that would scare Freddy Krueger! Although I guess at the time, the core idea behind Virtual Terror came from my fascination with those Magic Eye posters and the idea of what if you saw images that were premonitions, rather than what the designers intended. Other than that, I just make stuff up. In all, while I don’t exactly base my stories or even scenes on specific real-life events, I am usually incorporating some theme or perspective I think is important for readers to learn or consider. My Bards Blood series was like that. While they were horror tales based on Shakespeare, they had an interesting feminist angle because, particularly in Hamlet, women were treated rather shabbily. What if Shakespeare had an appreciation for the modern role of women in society, how would that affect his plays? So, ideas like that are embedded in everything I write.
Any guidelines you had to follow when writing Tales of Terror?
There were a few. Because they were teen novels, I couldn’t do graphic sex. Not that I would have. I had to keep the language relatively tame, but again, that’s kinda natural—I use the f-word once (or twice) in the Bards Blood series, and it felt awkward to do so, to be honest (and really made an Amazon.com reviewer very angry!). Guess I had to prove I wasn’t doing another set of teen novels (which they pretty much were). I also couldn’t make the situations too realistically frightening or disturbing. All the horror had to come from fantasy elements (violent deaths notwithstanding).
For example, and I think this will be the first time this will be publicly revealed, in the first draft of Virtual Terror (written in six days), Keith’s original vision in the poster was that of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding! And the name of the poster was originally called the Challenger, meaning the image on the poster was very difficult to resolve. My editor loved it—and this image figured prominently throughout the first draft of the novel. Well, at some point, someone ELSE at Tor read the novel and said, “No way!” Apparently, I’d crossed a line of taste and realism, so I had gut the book of Challenger references and change it to “Mysteria.” I think it worked, ultimately, especially if you didn’t know what was there originally. However, if you’ve read the book, you’ll remember the climactic scene where a trailer explodes because it’s been filled with gas. Well, that was meant to recall the Challenger exploding. Now, it’s just… an explosion with no obvious resonance. They publisher was probably right to make me change it. Unless I was writing a truly adult novel, I’d probably be more sensitive and avoid such a reference. I can sometimes be insensitive like that. (For example, there are far too many parenthetical phrases in this section, which is insensitive of me, if not downright annoying.)
Meanwhile, the most interesting guideline for writing the Tales of Terror series was… Freddy Krueger couldn’t be in them! It was a guideline from New Line. I believe it was because the more he would be in a novel, the more chances one might have to violate his mythology. So… I was only allowed to have him bookend the story like the Crypt Keeper. He could also appear briefly at the very end of the main story for the big reveal of which character he was possessing, as he did in each story.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned when you began writing “professionally”?
I like how you put “professionally” in quotes. I get that a lot in Hollywood where, unless you’re like a Stephen King or Michael Crichton, the whole book thing is an oddity.
In the case of books like those I write, the most surprising thing I learned was that the writer himself was the least important person in the process!! For example, the cover of New Nightmare was printed and the copy written for it long before I was hired. As a result, all the very cool stuff in the novel—the pseudo documentary aspect of it—couldn’t be touted on the cover. So, anyone buying it would simply think they were getting a straightforward novelization. Which was a shame, because I’m very proud of what I did with that book. And the form New Nightmare took was my solution to a conflict between New Line, who wanted a very quasi-realistic documentary book, and Tor, the publisher, who wanted to simply publish a novelization. I’ve been a fan of “fake documentaries” for a long time and they really liked my take. And that lead to my second surprise—the book turned out so well, between the publisher and the studio, they only removed one paragraph I’d written and that was only because I’d mentioned a film from a competing studio. Who knew so much of my book would remain intact?!
Of course, I haven’t been that lucky since.
Were your family and friends supportive of your writing career?
Absolutely. My family, especially, weren’t exactly sure what being a “professional” writer meant (there are those damn quotes again!). But I’d been writing since I was a kid, so it wasn’t strange to them I’d try to pursue writing as an actual career. There was also great benefit to the fact that I wrote New Nightmare in my parents’ home while working a temp job. So… I’d work 8 hours a day, come home, see them briefly over dinner, then tromp up to my room and write until 2am or so, then wake up early for work and do it all again. This went on for a month. It allowed them to realize the dedication I had to writing and that it really did take time and effort to do. And then to follow that up with an actual book one could go to the bookstore and buy, well, they never questioned my choice. While they still didn’t quite understand the process, they recognized it as a job that produced tangible results and a bit of money. I’ve since written one other book at home—Hamlet 2: Ophelia’s Revenge was written in two weeks while I sat next to a frog pond at my parents’ house. When I said I was having trouble writing and could I just hang at home for a month and work, they immediately said yes. So, yes, lots of support!
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I would say (as in, I would hope!) that my most interesting quirk is my habit of throwing in somewhat jarring, abstract images. To reinforce my nickname of “Purveyor of Fine Cheese”, but I just can’t resist a Monty Python-inspired image-like in New Nightmare when an assistant hands Heather a cell phone and she is so disoriented, she perceives she’s being handed a squid. Maybe that only plays well inside my head, but I enjoyed that little image.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Good stories have a consistent internal logic, something crucially at stake and characters that the audience can emotionally invest in.
First off, a story has to quickly develop a set of rules for its world, whether the story is horror, fantasy or is more reality-based. This way, an audience can develop a set of expectations that can be, in turn, met or toyed with within its own context. This creates pacing, suspense and allows an audience to roll with the proceedings. Fail to do so, or sacrifice logic (not necessarily “realism”) for the sake of an individual scene or worse (as in the case of Brothers Grimm) loosely string together a bunch of arbitrary set-pieces then you destroy pacing, suspense and audience investment. Why follow a story that doesn’t seem to be paying attention to itself?
Then you have to have characters you care about in these stories. Oh, horror movies in particular are known for containing strong stereotypes-the jock, the rich bitch, the nerd, etc.—but even so, these characters must be given some dimension and weight. If not, if you can’t identify with a character, buy into his or her reality, then nothing matters. A character you don’t believe exists can never be in danger. And in a horror movie, if you can’t believe characters are in danger, then it can’t be scary.
And finally, this adds up to something crucial has to be at stake. Someone’s life. A balance of power. The fate of the world. Something. Something irrevocable. And it can’t be easily solved. Take Near Dark and Lost Boys. In both films, vampirism ends up to be easily cured. That defangs the entire proposition of being a vampire, cuz hey, if you can cure it with a transfusion now, a few years down the line there’d probably be some over-the-counter remedy. And how frightening would the prospect of vampires be then? Also, I’m a big fan of sacrifice. You can’t get without giving. I’m perfectly happy with happy endings, but if something significant wasn’t sacrificed to achieve it, if characters simply end up back where they started (see the ending of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds), it makes the journey, for the characters and for the audience, pointless.
The NOES Companion would like to thank David for his time (and patience). Click here for more novels by David Bergantino.