We're sitting down to interview David Simms, the author of the historical thriller, Fear The Reaper, out this summer from Crossroads Press. We find him hiding in the corner, avoiding the four or five jobs he has because of that whole teacher equals poverty thing. Hopefully, he'll have a free moment between teaching high school classes, tutoring every subject imaginable, counselling teens at a military school, giving disturbingly funny ghost tours, reviewing books and giving guitar lessons. By the way, there's a ferocious fiver year-old gnawing at his leg.
Your first novel was a YA dark fantasy. Why take a U-turn to historical fiction?'
Mental hospitals always pop up in my life, They're inexpensive vacations for teachers and usually in convenient locations.
When I moved to the Shenandoah Valley, I went on a ghost tour and discovered I now lived less than a mile from one of the most infamous hospitals in the history of this country. Well into the writing of a novel that had nothing to do with this topic, I found myself entranced by the dark history of the place. I mean, hell, the most powerful businessmen in America jumpstarted the Nazi movement and nearly caused a similar holocaust right here in the states? How in the hell did I not know this? The more I dug into it, the more I rediscovered my love of history. Yet I doubted I could pull it off. I nearly gave up on it until I talked to David Morrell about it in New Orleans. Neither of us could recall a novel that ever focused on the eugenics movement in America, He told me if I could write a decent story about it , it could be talk show material. You never doubt Rambo's daddy.
Six months later, I still couldn't find a fictional account of this dark chapter in history so I dove deep and researched harder than I did for my Master's thesis. Glad I did. Thanks, Mr. Morrell!
How much of the story actually happened and how much is fiction?
Honestly, about 90% of the events in the novel occurred in history. Of course, the character interaction is fiction and Sam Taylor's family is fictional, as is his girlfriend. Of course, the sex scenes never happened - most of that is pure fiction. I'm working from memory there, really stretching my own experiences, save for the ghost sex and the bit with the train in the park. I've never defiled anything in my park in Staunton, I swear. Other states and cities, I plead the fifth.
But seriously, many of the scenes were built upon historical accounts from various texts, interviews with former staff (psychologists, doctors, nurses, teachers, etc( of Western State Hospital. There's one major plot point that stretched the truth, but only stretched. The evidence behind it is secure.
What's more frightening, living up the hill from one of the most infamous asylums in America or surviving New Jersey?
Have you ever been to Jersey? I'm kidding. I absolutely love New Jersey - just hated living there. Chris Christie, The Jersey Shore show, and the taxes. I prefer to live in a state where a teacher can afford a decent house and not pay $1500 for a one bedroom apartment. Nothing beats the music scene, pizza, bagels, and my friends.
But, try driving there for a few months and tell me how much it ages you - if you survive. I'll take the asylum any day.
Staunton, Virginia is always on the best small towns list. What's been the reaction from the citizens there towards the book?
Schizophrenic. Many in this amazing town want the story to be heard. Many have had relatives who were patients in the hospital, operated on, experimented on, tortured, etc. They've been trying to have their stories told for decades. Yet the old guard keeps sweeping the truth under the rug so much until the mound is bigger than the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the town. I've had two reviews that were obviously written by disgruntled bingo players who are pissed that I'm not driving a pickup with confederate flags, wearing a MAGA hat, and keeping my mouth shut like they prefer the townsfolk to do. I'm curious to see the reactions to the three book events I've been invited to in town. I thank the many people who own the history and want it to come to light. Years ago, I visited Dachau. The people there own what happened and want to ensure history never repeats itself. Staunton, for the most part, has the same mindset, at least when bingo isn't in session.
You give a historical ghost tour in town. Did that play a role in the development of the novel?
Of course. Paranormal people rock. When I became a tour guide for Black Raven Paranormal, I hung with the best people. I also had to learn a ton about the town's history, and not the stuff that's found in books. I spoke to several business owners, townspeople who have had generations of their families here since Dejarnette was torturing people. I didn't want to add the element of the supernatural into a thriller but it may have crept in... just a hair, or two.
6. What was the most challenging aspect of writing something that history has spent nearly a century hiding?
Convincing people that this actually happened. The contingent in town who still believe life was best when separate water fountains and schools ruled frothed at the mouth when word got out. I interviewed a few people who flat out denied the events happened. When I showed them photos, they cried (what else?). "fake news." That tells you a lot about the mindset. Thankfully, much of Staunton is pretty modern, especially the thinking. Those who fight the results of the Civil War and go to church armed to the teeth typically reside outside the town limits. The sad part came when I met with a few agents who thought it was a cool story but refused to believe it really occurred. I asked one guy to Google it, since we were in a pitch session. He refused and said I was lying. You can't fight ignorance.
What was the wildest thing you learned while researching FEAR THE REAPER?
That people used to party on the asylum grounds. Western State Hospital was the best looking property in town. Families came to picnic there. It annoyed the patients so much that the iron fance was built to keep people OUT. Also, the mass graves out back. Seeing rows upon rows of unmarked tombstones, knowing each plot held up to six corpses is enough to give anyone chills.
You've played lead guitar and helped form an interesting band. The good, the bad, and the surreal?
Yikes. First of all, it was the best experience of my life. The Killer Thriller Band, formed in 2006 for the first ever Thrillerfest came together on a whim. I snuck into the band thanks to a special writer friend who convinced the powers that be that I had some skills. She was telling the truth. I also play a decent guitar.
When we hit the stage in front of several hundred people in Phoenix, and then NYC a year later with David Morrell, F. Paul Wilson, Heather Graham, Michael and Daniel Palmer, John Lescroart, Blake Crouch, Alexandra Sokoloff, Harley Jane Kozak, and Scott Nicholson, I don't think my feet ever hit the floor. The good? Playing the House of Blues in Disney World or the Brighton Pier in England. The bad? Having only a few hours to practice with each other before hitting the stage. That never bodes well. One time in Burbank, we were kicked out of the hotel, then Yahoo (corporate office) called the cops on us, so we were kicked back INSIDE (which was good since a thunderstorm had began), and then to a room where most of the outlets didn't work. Thankfully, most of the audience drank heavily that night and didn't hear well. The surreal? Signing autographs in Disney because a crowd thought we were Guns N Roses (they were playing the big stage at the venue). We obliged, of course.
Everyone has a quirky writing routine or superstition. What's yours?
I've learned to write just about anywhere. Having multiple jobs and a 5 year old will do that to you. However, when I sit out on the porch (a screened in treasure that looks out into the mountains). The world melts away out there.
You've given music therapy workshops for a long time. How the hell does that fit in with writing?
Writers can be pretty messed up people, psychologically speaking. Not all, just many. I wrote my Master's thesis on how music can help de-stress back in 2002 and quickly discovered that most teachers are over-stressed. Then I discovered writers. Amazingly, when you find the right groove, usually between 60-80 beats per minutes, regardless of the genre, your body adapts to the tempo, completely. I've had writers come to me afterwards and tell me they've found more rhythm to their stories after a few days of listening while on their laptops. The science is nothing new but it's fascinating how it turns stories into works of music.
Checking into that fine mental hospital for a little vacation. I think it's where all teachers wind up. Actually, I pitched two novels I've completed to agents this summer at Thrillerfest. One is a middle-grade adventure series for my little guy and the other is thriller with a bit of black comedy about a teacher who moonlights as an assassin. That's mostly fiction.
You manage to carve out time to review books. Why bother? Cloning yourself, hiring minions, or just reading the cover flaps and lying?
Free books! What can be better than that? I love to discover new writers, help get the word out about great books, and simply read for fun. Now, if only some of those writers could review my books... Actually, some have and have helped out tremendously. I have one rule about reviewing. I won't write up a bad one. If it sucks or just doesn't work for me, I don't share it. There are plenty of others too willing to go there. A book is a living part of the author. My subject taste shouldn't be used to tear someone apart.
Some people are expecting you to spontaneously combust one day from overextending yourself. What are the odds you'll wind up in Western State Hospital one day yourself?
They've got a room ready for me. I just need my guitar and books and I'll be ready to check in.