William Freedman: I’m chatting with Nicholas Kaufmann, author most recently of Chasing the Dragon, available through leading dark fantasy/horror purveyor ChiZine Publications. He agreed to talk about his writing process. So, Nick, when did you first become aware of “chasing the dragon” as a colloquialism for shooting heroin? When I heard Johnny Depp say the line in the movie From Hell it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Nicholas Kaufmann: Actually, the expression wasn’t originally about shooting heroin, it was Cantonese slang for inhaling heroin smoke out of a bowl, which is how opium was consumed for centuries before it became modernized in an injectable form. Later, “chasing the dragon” became a catch-all expression for heroin use. I had heard the expression before From Hell, but I’m at a loss to remember where and when. I’m pretty sure it was not the 1996 Lifetime TV movie of the same name starring Night Court’s Markie Post as a suburban junkie mom. Though that would be an awesome story if it were.
WF: I’m sure you have any number of projects in folders on your desk or loops in your mind. What was the impetus for writing this particular book rather than pursuing another creative outlet?
NK: A writer’s mind tends to be a fertile playground for ideas, but the deep, dark secret no writer will ever admit is that the great majority of the ideas we get every day — like, nine out of every ten — are terrible. Just total crap that we’re embarrassed we thought of in the first place. But some ideas show a decent amount of potential and stay with me. Unfortunately, I’m not like other writers who can work on numerous projects at once. I tend to focus on one project at a time, so some ideas have to wait quite a while before coming to the fore.
However, Chasing the Dragon didn’t have to wait long. The idea came to me in 2008, at a time when I was focusing on novella-length
work. I’d published General Slocum’s Gold the year before and been nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for it, and had just finished
another, still unpublished novella called In the Shadow of the Axe when the idea for Chasing the Dragon hit me. I started work on it pretty much right away, though in this case starting work meant doing research on heroin, addiction, and dragon mythology from around the world, before writing a single word.
WF: I understand how you’d research dragon lore, but what are the steps to researching heroin addiction?
NK: I should probably clarify so you don’t get the wrong impression! I researched online what items are needed to prepare a fix, how to actually shoot heroin, the physical and mental effects of the drug, and the side effects of jonesing. I just hope the NSA wasn’t tracking my Google searches those particular days!
“I just hope the NSA wasn’t tracking my Google searches”
WF: One thing I found remarkable about Chasing the Dragon was the way it sewed together so many seemingly disparate elements: dragons, drugs, Americana, zombies … Zombies? Really? Zombies?
NK: Ha! Yes, zombies. Here’s the thing. Over the past five or ten years, I’ve grown tired of zombies. Really tired. It’s like they’re everywhere now, and while I know there are still lots of people out there who can’t get enough of them, I’ve reached my limit. But it’s not really the zombies themselves I’m tired of, it’s that they’re being used the same way over and over again. In my opinion, the whole mindless hordes of gut-munchers thing has become overdone to the point of boredom. (I love you, George Romero, but what hath thou wrought?) I don’t see many people trying to do new and exciting things with zombies, other than inserting them into classic literature for comic effect, which also got old pretty damn fast. I had been wanting to do something different with zombies for a long time, and to that end I actually wound up going back to what zombies were originally meant to be. Rather than flesh-hungry corpses reanimated by a virus or a nuclear waste spill or what have you, original zombie lore had them used as slave labor by an evil mastermind. Even though that’s an age-old take on the trope, it felt fresh to me again after four decades of Romeroesque zombies eating the field barren. In Chasing the Dragon, I wanted to show just how terrible the Dragon is through her ability not just to kill people, but to infect their dead bodies with her will and use their reanimated corpses to do her dirty work for her. I don’t know how successful I was, but I hope I was able to make zombies — or at least my zombies — a little more interesting for readers.
WF: Which of these elements did you start with? And from the point of view of craft, which came first for you: theme, plot, character?
NK:I started with the title, actually! I rarely do that, usually a character or a plot thread comes first, but something about combining the legend of St. George with heroin and calling it Chasing the Dragon really appealed to me. From there I developed Georgia Quincey, the last living descendant of St. George, and her strange and tragic predicament. (By the way, bonus points to anyone who can figure out the secret reason I gave her the last name Quincey!) [My guess is it has something to do with Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but that’s based on 0.13 seconds of research on Google. – wf] Oddly enough, the Dragon and her ability to control the dead came last for me. I didn’t know what the Dragon looked like or even what her goals were until I was well into the initial draft of the book! I tend to roll my eyes a bit whenever writers say they wait for their characters to tell them who they are, or that books sometimes write themselves, but even if it sounds goofy there’s some truth to it, more so with Chasing the Dragon than with anything else I ever wrote.
WF: What are you working on now, and how far along are you in the process?
NK:I’m just finishing up a fantasy novel that takes place in contemporary New York City. It’s like a quest fantasy, only our band of heroes are questing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan instead of through some imaginary medieval kingdom. It’s the first in a projected series, and I’ve got three books mapped out already. If it sells well enough, I would be happy to keep it going past that. I really like these characters, and I love writing about a hidden, magical New York City that most New Yorkers don’t know about, a city where an ancient dragon lives in the sewers and goblins hold midnight rituals in Prospect Park.
WF: You’re a member of a crit group [known as “Who Wants Cake”]. How does that help you as a writer?
NK: Enormously. I put together my own crit group back in 2003, hand picking writers whose work I admired and from whom I was certain I could learn. (It helps that I live in New York City, where there are no shortage of writers to become friendly with.) Luckily, all the writers I approached were interested. Since then, some members have left and new ones have joined, but it’s been amazing and gratifying to see how far we’ve all come. Several members have gone on to have successful careers as novelists. A few got published for the very first time. But most gratifying, to me, is how much I learned from everyone in the group. I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today without their help and support. I love them like family, and half the fun of crit group night is going out to dinner with them afterward and just chewing the fat.
WF: How closely does your group mirror your target audience?
NK: Very closely, in that they are all avid readers. I wish everyone read as much as these folks do. Most of us write speculative fiction –horror, fantasy, sf — but not all of us. We also have a couple of amazing literary fiction writers in the group, and their input has been just as amazing. They tend to focus their crits on character and emotion issues, something genre writers like myself sometimes forgot to pay proper attention to because I’m so busy working on the plot.
WF: What would you — or they — say you need to work on as a writer, and what are you doing to build yourself up along those lines?
NK: I know I struggle with dialogue sometimes, trying to make it sound as realistic as possible and frequently falling short. Luckily, this is where revision comes into play, cleaning up all the stilted dialogue that finds its way into the initial draft. It’s the same with pacing. In early drafts I sometimes tend to babble on, resulting in passages or conversations that can definitely stand to be condensed in revisions. But G.I. Joe was right, knowing is half the battle, and by being aware of these issues I can keep an eye out for them while I work. I’m one of those writers who believes every word you write makes you a better writer, even if that word gets deleted down the road, so with each project I hope I’m growing and evolving.
“every word you write makes you a better writer, even if that word gets deleted down the road”
WF: Looking forward, do you expect to stick with the dark fantasy subgenre or will you be branching out?
NK: I like to keep the door open. I started out in horror and seem to be edging toward dark and modern fantasy, but I also have ideas for mystery and suspense novels. What they all have in common, of course, is their focus on the darker things in life. I guess I’m attracted to that, at least when it comes to what I write. In real life, I have a much sunnier disposition!
Nicholas Kaufmann’s blog www.nicholaskaufmann.com can direct you to outlets through which his books are available.