It’s basically a kitchen sink horror story.
It’s not every day you hear about a premise of a new book that takes you completely by surprise, but CRJ Smith’s debut novel, Semianimus is inspired. Zombies in Ireland. In County Meath, no less. What a great idea!
Hailing from Navan, County Meath, author CRJ Smith has captured the Irish character and delivered a tale that is sure to make its mark in the horror genre. Equal parts MR James and Stephen King but with a voice that’s uniquely his own, you can expect to hear much more from Mr Smith.
I asked CRJ about his book and his process. Here is what he had to say:
Q. So this year you have a short story published in an anthology and your first novel released. How are you feeling?
A. I feel great. Seeing my piece in the anthology and it not looking out of place between stories from more experienced writers is a brilliant feeling. Having my novel finished and out there is surreal. Obviously I’m nervous, too, and I’m flip-flopping between confidence and self-doubt, but generally, it’s been great.
Q. How long have you been writing?
A. I’ve always loved writing. In school, when we had to do stories for creative writing, mine would often be picked to be read out. I remember winning £5 in a primary school writing competition. I kept copy books filled with little stories and doodles. As I got older, I kept A4 pads and notebooks filled with poems, songs, stories and ideas. Then in my early twenties I just stopped. I threw all of my writing in the bin, and that was it. I would still have ideas, I don’t think you can ever turn off that part of your brain, but I never wrote anything down.
Then in January 2013, a few days after I turned 28, I started writing a novel and, here we are.
Q. Your work so far seems to focus on the eerie side of things. What’s the attraction?
A. I’ve loved horror since I was a kid. When I was young enough to still have a bedtime, I used to be allowed to stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights. There would always be some old horror movie on, usually starring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing or a 60’s Godzilla. Even back then, the stories I would write in school would quite often be on the eerie side. My teachers must have thought I was pretty weird.
When I was ten I bought a copy of Dracula with my pocket money. Frankenstein was next, then X-files novels and Stephen King.
So that’s why I write eerie tales. I figure horror has given me so much down the years and I’d like to add my own voice to genre.
Q. Tell us about Semianimus: what sets it apart from other horror novels, particularly those about zombies?
A. I think the setting, a small town in Ireland, allows for a different take on the zombie outbreak. None of the survivors has access to a gun or any really useful weaponry. They’re pushed to extremes, but they don’t perform superhuman acts. They’re resourceful, scared and selfish. They become complacent and this allows in a new danger that they weren’t prepared for.
I wondered, as all horror fans do, what I would do in the event of an outbreak and I tried to represent that. It’s basically a kitchen sink horror story.
The zombies don’t learn. They don’t have a leader. They don’t knowingly travel in packs. They can run, but over the course of the book they decompose like any dead body, especially one exposed to the elements, would. They’re still dangerous of course, but I made them closer to Romero’s original zombies than more recent offerings.
Q. Why would I want to read it?
A. I tried to make the characters three dimensional and relatable. There are no ‘Redshirt’ characters. Even those who were originally intended to appear only briefly fought for their lives and showed me they weren’t ready to go quietly.
I hope readers will empathise with and care about the characters, whether it’s the adults, the cat or Ellie and her teddy bear.
It would have been so easy to write constant zombie attacks and cover the pages with gallons of blood and guts, but I didn’t want to do that. It’s been done, we’ve all seen it and it’s lazy. I’m not claiming that Semianimus is some modern classic, but I tried to write something that had a bit of substance. And did I mention there was a cat?
Q. Ha! The cat is a masterstroke. All zombie stories should have cats. Perhaps now they will.
You also have a short story in the recently-released anthology High Strange Horror. Púca takes an ancient Irish legend and brings it up to date. Is there more material in our past that you might use?
A. Absolutely. There is a wealth of material out there that is ripe for a re-visit or modernising. I have ideas for some short stories and I just have to find the time to get around to them.
The Púca grabbed me because I was aware of the legend as a kid, but I haven’t heard or thought about it in the longest time. I will definitely continue the story I started in High Strange Horror. I have an idea for a Púca novel that I think could work.
I did toy with the idea of featuring other legends in the short story, alongside the Púca, but I didn’t want it turning into some kind of Monster Squad or Irish Legends:Assemble.
Q. Who would you say has influenced your writing?
A. The authors who wrote books that I love; Bram Stoker, Stephen King and Charles Dickens, amongst many others.
Growing up, I never really had any encouragement to keep writing and I never saw it as potentially leading to anything. It was just something I did from time to time. But I read constantly and I think that’s the biggest influence any writer has. You’ll read things you love, are indifferent to, or dislike immensely, then you take something from each of those feelings and formulate your own style.
Q. Do you see yourself as primarily a writer of horror stories, or do you think you might branch out into other genres? If so,what?
A. The projects I’m working on at the moment are works of horror and I think that’s where my mind will always go to first. In saying that, my little notebook of story ideas is being added to all the time and there are a few things in there that contain no traces of the supernatural.
Horror will always be my passion because of the freedom it allows. You can make it as grounded or fantastical as you want it to be. But I hope I have a lot of writing ahead of me and I wouldn’t rule anything out. You just have to follow the idea and see where it leads.
Q. For a comparatively new writer, you’ve already had remarkable success. What advice would you give other writers?
A. It’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway; write as often as possible. It really is the best way of improving your craft. You can listen to advice and tips all day long, but the only way you’ll get any better is if you put it in the hours and put words down on the page. Then delete those words and write better ones. Repeat this process until you have something you’re happy with.
When you have something ready, send it out. Overcome the nerves and self-doubt and send your manuscript to publishers and agents who look like they might be a good fit. The whole process is daunting at first, and the first rejection will sting (and the second…and the third). Actually it never gets easier, at least it hasn’t for me yet, but you’ll pick yourself up quicker each time. And you never know what will come of it. Púca getting into the High Strange Horror anthology only came about because the editor, Jonathan Raab, rejected Semianimus, but saw something in my writing he liked and gave me the chance to submit a short story.
So keep going and if you have faith in yourself, then eventually someone else will too.
Q. Great advice and it obviously works well for you. Tell us a little about your process. Do you have a specific way of starting work? Pen and paper or computer? Daily word-count, etc.?
A. I started Semianimus with a pen and paper and got 8 pages into an A4 pad before I switched to using Word on my lap-top. That’s all I use now, although I write all my notes in a notebook or on any random scrap of paper that happens to be within reach.
As far as a word count goes, it doesn’t really work for me. I feel it adds unnecessary pressure and unless I’m on a deadline, it’s not something I worry about.
I’m lucky enough to have a room where I can go to write. I have a desk and office chair and I can write without distractions. I have tried listening to music because a lot of authors swear by it, but I found it off putting.
So that’s my process, a laptop and silence!
CRJ’s work is available from Amazon:
Follow CRJ’s blog: https://crjsmithofficial.wordpress.com/