13 Questions with N. D. Coley

Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself.

Nathan Coley: I was born and raised near Pittsburgh, PA, and currently reside there with my wife and children. I am a teacher of English composition at the University of Phoenix and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. I started reading horror fiction seriously at about the time I entered junior high school. I collected some change and picked up a book at a local drug store: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. From that point I was hooked on dark fiction. When I’m not writing, I’m busy hunting the internet for collectible action figures, playing video games, or doing an exercise program. My favorite part of the day is my nighttime routine, where I wind down with some pipe tobacco, a little bourbon, and a good book. I have a large portrait tattoo of Edgar Allan Poe on my left arm. It keeps me company.

CB: When you write, do you start with a plan and move from there, or do you generally go where the writing takes you?

NC: I am absolutely terrible with planning with fiction writing. If I need to write a proper academic essay, I will take notes and plot out my paragraph themes. When I write fiction, it is often from an image, an idea, or some other catalyst. I wrote my story, “The Partition, or Dance of the Graveyard Bells” in an early issue of Coffin Bell after a coworker challenged me to write in a style that paid homage to Edgar Allan Poe. As soon as I came up with the idea (a story about a graveyard keeper who does not exactly use the safety bells on coffins for their intended purposes) I found a new magazine…Coffin Bell.

Sometimes my stories will come from the inspiration of a single image or incident. The first story that I ever wrote with the serious intent of publication (“Halfsie,” published in Corner Bar Magazine in 2016) was a dark, speculative piece that was inspired by the odd habit a coworker had of smoking a cigarette halfway and then putting it out to save for later.

Often, the details come to me as I write, but I rarely have a plan. I am more concerned with mood, premise, and setting to be the true heroes of the story, so I just kind of let the plot fall into place.

CB: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

NC: Write for yourself and find a publisher afterwards; never try to modify your own voice for the sake of publication.

CB: What advice can you give new and emerging writers?

NC: You have got to be in this for thee sake of expression; of getting out emotions and ideas and telling stories that you think might make it easier for people to get up in the morning. There was a time when short fiction writing was an actual source of income. In his early days, Stephen King’s wife used to tell him to  “make up a new monster” to quickly get cash for food or medicine. Times are different. The internet has made it easier to read, write, and publish, but it is an oversaturated market and should not be considered your path to financial stability. Dream big, but do it for the sake of your art and nothing else.

CB: What publishing advice can you give?

NC: Write as much as you can. Submit as much as you can. If you are serious about really penetrating the market as a writer, and especially for things like short fiction and poetry, be prepared to set up your own spreadsheet. Keep track of publishers who fit you, and those who do not. Log your rejections and make note of them. Often, the rare and lengthy rejection means that the editors believe in you, but did not believe in that story. Writing is not a science, the editors are not scientists. Be prepared for rejection, but remember how amazing it feels to be validated. One acceptance makes 20 rejection letters disappear.

CB: Who are your influences?

NC: Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Sherwood Anderson, Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, E. L. Doctorow, Frank McCourt, Jack Ketchum, Margaret Atwood, Lisa Carey, George Orwell, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip Pullman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Tim O’Brien, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.

CB: What’s one thing you wish every journal editor knew?

NC: I imagine the vast majority of editors are writers themselves, so I am not sure that there’s any one revelation here that would be eye opening for editors. I think they all know the pain of rejection and the elation that comes with acceptance. Since I imagine that most editors are writers, but that most writers are not magazine editors, I would be more interested in what an editor can tell me.

CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.

NC: I am afraid of death and the beyond. I could be wrong, but I think there is a scene in Catch-22 where Yossarian imagines the various ways in which he could die of injury or disease. I had someone very important to me die suddenly last summer (of some kind of cardiac event), and since then I have found the moments where I fall asleep unsettling. I close my eyes and imagine that the heart will stop, or that I won’t wake up for some other reason, such as a blood clot or aneurysm.

CB: What draws you to dark fiction?

NC: Dark fiction is a coping mechanism for me. While I cannot say that I have had it all that badly in life, I still experience many things that put the human condition to the test–the sudden loss of friends and family, death, disease, etc. I have a sense of humor and make jokes frequently (no doubt another coping mechanism), but I need art that taps deep into the nature of what it means to be human and face threats. The cosmos is expanding and cooling. The sun is running out of fuel. Nations wage war. Pandemics bring life and ways of life to a halt. I experience physical pain and emotional pain. I am, like everyone else, a human in a seemingly doomed fight against everything. I need literature that takes matters of life, death, and cosmic significance head on, in its themes, premises, characters, and settings. It is probably why Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, maybe the most depressing book written in our lifetime, is my favorite novel.

CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?

NC: I do not think that themes of life, death, and spiritual and emotional struggle are exclusive to dark fiction, but I do think that dark fiction is able to better accentuate these themes in my stories. If you take the theme of a person descending into madness, you can pad that theme in gloomy weather. You can make a character out of a graveyard. You can haunt the thoughts of your character with horrific dreams. You can take the greatest fears of the character and make them manifest in creatures and spirits that do not exist in the world we know. Dark fiction is the realization of a nightmare. In my own work, I consider mood and setting to be the most important character, and I think dark fiction sets the moods for which I look.

CB: How important are your surroundings when you write?

NC: My writing formula is generally: loud music, played through soundproof headphones. Punk or metal work best, but certain soundtracks (especially by Hans Zimmer) do the trick too. I prefer to write on gloomy days and in cold climates (my favorite types of settings in most cases).

CB: If you had to summarize your philosophy of literary creation, what would that be?

NC: In the process of creation, you cannot force an idea if it does not excite you, and you cannot expect the timing for inspiration to suit your schedule. Be prepared to scribble down thoughts for a story as soon as they come to you. Do not think that you must have things figured out before you start writing, and if you see your story is beginning to take on a life of its own, do not try to shoehorn it into a set of earlier notes that may not fit at all.

CB: Where can we find more of your work?

NC: I have Facebook page called “The Fiction of N. D. Coley,” and post links to my publications as soon as they go live. You can also find my stories at the bottom of most birdcages.