Harrison Demchick’s The Listeners follows the coming of age adventure of a teenage boy, thrust into a dystopian world inhabited by zombies, corrupt policemen and the mysterious cult: The Listeners. Demchick is the Deputy Publisher at Baltimore based Bancroft Press, specializing in niche books from Pulitzer Prize winning authors to emerging authors. Also a screenwriter, Demchick teaches book to screenplay adaptation and is the winner of the 2011 Baltimore Screenwriters Competition.
In this Author Q&A, Demchick talks about the evolution of his novel, the horror genre, querying publishers, advice for writers, and more!
Why did you write The Listeners?
Originally, I wrote The Listeners for an independent study my senior semester at Oberlin College. Of course, at the time, it wasn’t called The Listeners, and it wasn’t a novel. Ashes, Ashes was a series of interconnected short stories, and I wrote it because the idea of such a story cycle fascinated me. I wanted a scenario that would affect numerous characters in numerous ways, and that’s where the quarantine came from, and ultimately the Listeners as well. This was seven and a half years ago.
I became deeply invested in the characters, particularly Daniel Raymond. So I kept pursuing the story, turning Daniel’s story into a screenplay, and then adapting the whole thing into a novel. It has been, for the better part of a decade, a story that needed to be told one way or another.
What led you to make the transition from editor and deputy publisher to author?
I was a writer before I was ever an editor, much less a deputy publisher. I began work on the first short story that would lead to The Listeners during the summer of 2005—the same summer I began the internship that would lead to a career as an editor. I was always going to be an author in some sense, although not necessarily a novelist. And I’ve been working on The Listeners as long as I’ve been working in publishing.
What was your process for writing it?
When it came time to write the novel, I was adapting from a screenplay I’d already written. I’d actually been writing primarily screenplays for years, so the first thing I had to do is rediscover my prose—and, moreover, find the approach that would work best for the novel.
Because I already had a screenplay, and the screenplay laid out the general beats of the story, I didn’t need to spend too much time outlining, but I didn’t barrel straight through the manuscript either. A lot of writers recommend turning out a complete first draft before going back and editing anything. I don’t do that. I can’t—there’s too much editor in me. I wrote and rewrote and reconfigured the first 20 pages again and again and again as I tried to figure out how to approach this story. When it was good enough, I moved on, and I kept doing that until I had a draft. There were some structural and stylistic changes after that, and eventually there was a manuscript I rather liked.
What was your favorite part of writing The Listeners? The greatest challenge?
It’s hard to give one answer as far as my favorite part, because The Listeners was written in three distinct phases. The best part of the short stories was imagining and creating the world of the quarantined borough. The best part of the screenplay was crafting and experiencing the character of Daniel. The best part of the novel—and also the greatest challenge, honestly—was finding the right way to tell a story that had become such a part of me, and really refining the world in the process.
But the real greatest challenge is the marketing.
What is it about “zombie” culture that appeals to readers?
In the general sense, what has made zombies popular amongst horror fans is the inevitability of them—the irresistible force, essentially, and the sense that, even if you can escape this situation at that time, sooner or later, they will get you. There is no real escape. While the sick people, the sickos, in The Listeners are not really zombies—they’re not dead, they don’t eat people, and they can talk—they have that similar feel, which is what makes being trapped in the quarantine so terrifying.
What specifics do people who are writing in this genre need to know?
Well, horror is a broad genre. Honestly, I don’t think I knew I was writing horror until I finished the screenplay version of The Listeners. I was just writing a compelling character story about a kid named Daniel in a distorted, end-of-the-world-type scenario. Only when it was done could I look at the whole thing and say, wait, yes, this is a horror story. Okay. I can roll with that.
And maybe that’s the best advice I can give. It’s really true of any genre, but the experience is so much greater—and so much more frightening, if you go that route—if you’re invested in the character you’re following. It’s not about gore and slaughter—honestly, The Listeners doesn’t have much of that (although it has its moments). It’s about the person to whom these things are happening, and how that person changes through these experiences.
What are some mistakes newbie writers make in querying publishers and how can they fix them?
I’ve not spent a huge amount of time reading submissions, but one thing I can definitely say is that the cover letter is a lot more important than a lot of writers seem to think it is. Much of the time, these letters are brief and generic—and fairly often, there are typos and grammatical and formatting issues as well.
What I usually say to these writers, on those rare occasions when such submissions are e-mailed directly to me, is simply this: If your cover letter isn’t well-written, why should any publisher assume your submission is going to be any different? One of the worst things a writer can do to herself is convince a publisher reject her work without even reading it.
Additional advice for fiction writers?
More than can possibly fit into this interview. But first and fundamentally, make sure your manuscript is as strong as it can possibly be before you send it off. Have it edited by a professional editor. Take it was far as you possibly can. Some publishers will take something on based on its potential alone, but most won’t.
This is true if you’re self-publishing too. There are one million books published in some form or another every year. If you want to stand out, make sure your work is as spectacular as you can make it in every way.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
Depends on which career you mean. My career in publishing was a pretty fortunate primer for my experience as an author. I’m lucky enough to have known more going in than most. As for something I wish I’d known before I got into editing—honestly, I can’t think of anything. I learned through doing. That’s part of the experience. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have no idea. At this moment, I’m working on a cryptozoological dramedy screenplay, a horror short story, a zombie comedy musical, and several unrelated songs. These things may continue as they are, or they may change form. Maybe something will become a novel, or maybe I’ll never write another novel again. I’ll just continue to create things and see where that takes me.