I spent my first thirty-five years in New England before joining the University of Missouri as a research professor. When I'm not in my laboratory, I spend time devouring my favorite forms of genre fiction—suspense, thriller, and horror.
As a twelve-year-old boy sitting under a lime green beach umbrella on the sands of Cape Cod, I discovered a new world. It was the 70s—was the lime green umbrella a giveaway?—and Edgar Rice Burroughs took me to Venus on a regular basis. The sci-fi series hijacked my imagination and Frazetta’s scantily-clad, knife-wielding princess and mythical-beast cover art dazzled my senses. A year later, I wandered into Salem’s Lot and nothing was ever the same again. I discovered two lives: the one I lived and the one I fell into with each page turned.
While my published research articles and scientific book chapters reflect the logic and precision of left brain thinking, my right brain has roared back with a vengeance. Decades after going to Venus, I found myself once again on the sands of Cape Cod—sans lime green umbrella—with a story that would not leave my head. I tried to ignore it, but the characters called to me, begging to let them out. On a dare from my daughter, I began writing and spent the next twelve months glued to my computer, possessed to create the first in a series of supernatural thrillers. A Taker of Morrows is my first novel, but the characters called to me, begging for a sequel. And then The Soul Dweller appeared in 2018 and The Immortal Force came along in 2019.
Many of my Missouri friends asked me why I hadn't written a novel based in the Show-Me State. An opportunity arose with Reedy Press with their ‘100 Things’ series to pay homage to the city of Columbia, MO, where I've lived in for the past 20 years. Although 100 Things To Do in Columbia, MO Before You Die, released September 1, 2022, is anything but fiction, I was able to silence the Missouri hordes.
Throughout my journey, I've accumulated five guitars, four herniated discs, three academic degrees, two dogs, and one wife, son, and daughter, but not necessarily in that order. I divide my time between Columbia, Missouri and Cape Cod writing and teaching.
Stephen Paul Sayers sits down with his editor, Linda Kasten from Fix-It-Write.com, for a short Q&A about his new book, A Taker of Morrows, from Hydra Publications.
Linda: So, how does a university researcher and scientist start writing horror fiction?
Stephen: Not the typical pedigree, I admit. But we all have a creative side, and you never know where the journey will take you. I’ve been a researcher for almost twenty years, but the work only taxes my brain’s left half. The right side has been fighting for a voice to even things out for a long time now, and I thought it was time to give it one.
Linda: What inspired you to start writing?
Stephen: My daughter, Kaylee. She’s an amazing writer who wrote a full length novel before she was seventeen. When she first showed me her writing, I couldn’t believe the skills she’d developed so early, and the depth of her emotion and insight. She challenged me to try it myself, so I set out to write this book for her. But it grew into something more than that. We now have this shared thing we do together. We talk about story ideas, read each other’s work. She gave me this great idea in A Taker of Morrows that became a key to the series in my opinion. So, she’s my inspiration.
Linda: So, what’s your new novel, A Taker of Morrows, about?
Stephen: Plot-wise, it’s about a college professor—big surprise there, right?—who finds out he's scheduled to die in twenty-four hours. In his fight to stay alive, he stumbles onto a hidden world nestled inside his own, a battleground between the forces of good and evil from the afterlife, where ‘caretakers’ protect earthly souls and ‘jumpers’ prey on them. He has to straddle the tenuous boundary between worlds and face a dark and ruthless jumper if he’s going to save his family, and the world, from a fiery end.
But on a deeper level, it’s a story about the ongoing soul journey and the eternal price paid for what we carry in our souls.
Linda: Where did you get the idea for this book?
Stephen: I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of what happens when we die. I think we all are, I mean, it’s the ultimate question, right? I got to thinking, what if certain souls could slip back and forth between this world and the next to keep you safe and protected. I think it’s comforting to think that someone might be watching out for you. But as a horror writer I had to include the flipside of the coin, that there may be darker souls out there trying to harm you, too.
Linda: How many drafts did you undergo before arriving at your final version?
Stephen: I don’t think I can count that high! I definitely have trouble walking away and telling myself the novel is finished. We’re all perfectionists, and if I re-read the novel again, I’d still find something I’d want to tweak, a different phrase or scene to include. But at some point you have to let it go, move on. If there’s any advice I could give on this, I’d say finish your novel and move on to the next one.
Linda: They say writers tend to create their characters from their friends and family. Are any characters in the book based on people you know, and has it gotten you into trouble?
Stephen: I think we’re all guilty of rewriting our family and friends in our books. Funny thing about A Taker of Morrows: my sister read the book and told me she enjoyed my depiction of Johnny D, the main character’s best friend. She pointed out I had re-created one of my best friends from high school, including his ponytail, stubbled chin, and similar mannerisms. I even used his first name. But somehow I did it subconsciously, I hadn’t even thought of him when I wrote the part. But I’d obviously conjured my old friend, and now I can’t picture the character any other way.
I also had to change how I portrayed the in-laws if I wanted to salvage my marriage!
Linda: What do you enjoy reading and who are your favorite authors?
Stephen: I have so many authors I love reading in so many genres. They say writers should really focus on their own genre to improve their writing, and that’s definitely important, but there’s just too many good books out there to limit yourself. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King and Peter Straub, so I got a good horror base. I’m also a big fan of a new generation of horror writers, Joe Hill, Paul Cornell, J. Lincoln Fenn, and Paul Tremblay, so I definitely get my fill. I also love writers of suspense and thrillers, especially Jo Nesbo, Dennis LeHane and Randy Wayne White. I’ve recently discovered Melissa Lenhardt’s “Jack McBride” mystery series, which sort of borders on chick lit, and I really like it. So, bottom line, you gotta read everything.
Linda: Where do you do most of your writing?
Stephen: I do most of it when I’m on Cape Cod in the summer, which is probably why my stories are set there. It’s also the place I grew up, so the local flavor holds a special place for me. The storylines seem to come to me when I’m there, so I spend the summer putting the framework of the story together, work out the plot issues and twists. I do the rest of my writing in Columbia, MO, where I live full-time. That’s where I do the hard stuff, crafting the writing to sound like a novel. It seems each environment stimulates something interesting.
Linda: What are you working on now?
Stephen: A Taker of Morrows is the first in the Caretakers series. The second book, The Soul Dweller, is currently available through Hydra Publications later this year. Book 3, The Immortal Force, is coming Fall 2019k.
Linda: What is the best advice you can give to other writers about the process?
Stephen: I think I’ve learned that no two writers follow the same blueprint, and every writer has a different style, approach, strategy, and technique. Yes, you need to learn everything you can about the technical aspects of writing—attend conferences and workshops, do the work—and read, read, read. But in the end, do it your way. Only you can tell that story in your head.
On the publishing side, you must have thick skin and prepare for a lot of rejections. I read an interesting quote by an author who judges his success by the number of rejections he gets. Sounds backwards, doesn’t it? But if you are getting a lot of rejections, it means you are putting your work out there fearlessly. Publishing is a numbers game. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So, take some shots, even if you miss a few, the odds are something’s bound to go in.
Linda: On a lighter note, what are the top five things on your bucket list?
Stephen: I didn’t realize I was in ‘bucket list’ territory, but here goes:
1. Cage dive with the Cape Cod great white sharks
2. Stroll across the Abbey Road crosswalk
3. Drive to Graceland in an RV
4. Own a 1967 Mercury Cougar XR7 convertible
5. Gain the advantage over my Gibson SG
Linda: Where can people find out more about your writing?
Stephen: My website has all the information you need: http://www.stephenpaulsayers.com. Give it a visit. It has a couple short stories that are sort of fun, too. I’d love to hear what people think. Readers can also reach out to me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stephenpaulsayers Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/SayersAuthor or Instagram: https://www.Instagram.com/stephenpaulsayers