Hands down one of the finest books I’ve read that’s come out of the (late) Samhain Publishing stable is Q Island by Russell James. Of course I had to track Russell down and pester him.
SRW: Welcome Russell! Let’s get the boring writerly crap outta the way first. Constantly I’m being told to watch my overuse of metaphors and adverbs. In Q Island, you certainly don’t adhere to that rule. But you pull it off beautifully. Your metaphors never get in the way of the story and actually help to propel the narrative, a rare achievement. Have you ever had an editor (or anyone) tell you to cool it?
RJ: I had a writing coach circle a whole bunch of metaphors and ask how they fit into the story. I didn’t have a good answer. They were just off the wall. So after that, it was kind of a challenge to find ones that created the image I was looking for and also stayed within the theme of the scene or fit the character’s point of view.
SRW: Give the Tornado Alley readers an idea what Q Island’s about. But do it very melodramatically please (just because it amuses me).
RJ: A virus gets loose on Long Island, New York that turns people into crazed killers. The government blows the bridges and quarantines the island. Melanie Bailey has an autistic son who gets infected, but does not get sick. In fact, his autism gets a bit better. She realizes he may be the key to several cures, if she can get him off the island. So she has to get him past the crazies, she has to get him past the government soldiers, and she has to keep him out of the hands of a criminal gang leader, who has his own ideas about what to do with a boy who might be a cure.
SRW: Let’s talk about that bizarre first chapter. When I started reading, I was like “What the hell? I didn’t sign on for a book told from the viewpoint of a mastodon!” Defend yourself.
RJ: You wanted the story from the beginning, right? The first chapter was a risk. I wanted the reader to know the impact of the virus from the start and how it became entombed. There’s no infected point of view scenes in the book, so all you’ll see later is the crazies on the attack. This chapter was a chance to know how messed up their world is. I was hesitant to keep it in, but the editor of Samhain at the time, Don D’Auria said to keep it. The man is a horror editing legend, so what Don said went. So it stayed.
SRW: It’s cool. In retrospect, I believe the opening chapter helps ground the book in reality. Kinda.
Russell, the book’s very rough-going in parts. Not the writing! It’s extremely well written. But you don’t shy away from the gore and ultra-violence. Do you intentionally try to push boundaries in your books?
RJ: Q Island is without question the harshest horror I’ve ever written. The infected on the rampage brought a lot of that out. There’s a scene of cannibalism, and I worked really hard to capture the character’s simultaneous psychological repulsion to the act juxtaposed with the overwhelming physical craving to dive in. My wife is reading the manuscript in another room and calls out “Okay, I’m skipping the brain eating.” And I yell back, “No! You can’t! That’s the best scene!”
SRW: You certainly know your way around military grade guns, weapons and artillery. Russell, are you a gun-toting, mountain-dwelling survivalist or a heavy duty researcher?
RJ: I spent five years in the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, so I picked up a lot of the military stuff there.
SRW: I could tell there was a good deal of research done for this book. Nice job. I enjoyed how we follow the paths of four very different people until their journey dovetails in a solidly apocalyptic finale. Aiden, one of your protagonists, is a young boy with autism. Not only did you mine his illness to great suspenseful effect, I think you handled it with care and sensitivity. Have you had any personal experience with anyone who suffers from autism?
RJ: My wife is the principal of a school for children with learning disabilities. She has many autistic children there from all along the spectrum. Aiden’s character is at the far end of that spectrum. My wife has lots of sad stories about how some of the kids were treated before enrolling with her. She was the expert on Aiden. I would ask her whether certain reactions were normal, and what accommodations parents would have to make. That part of the story has brought me some heartwarming fan mail from people much closer to the condition than I am, who are so happy that the autistic child wasn’t the villain. I had one woman come back the second day of a horror con in tears to tell me that her son was autistic, she’d stayed up most of the night to finish the book, and Melanie’s life was just like hers. My wife gets full credit for me nailing the character.
SRW: Melanie, Aiden’s mother, is a warrior, a fierce lioness who’ll do anything to protect her cub. I have to say, though, I was a little taken aback about how she was so willing to have her son studied by the military. Surely she had to know that’d be a living hell for him.
RJ: Melanie also has this naïve streak in her. She doesn’t realize what a total jerk her husband is, early on she keeps thinking that society will maintain some normalcy. She loses a lot of this as the book progresses, but in her desperation to save her son, with escape from the island seemingly impossible, that naiveté peeks out just one more time. Everyone needs a character flaw.
SRW: Jimmy Wade is a particularly interesting character. Starting off as a weasel of a street hood, he soon becomes a frightening Big Bad, a very King-like villain. Level with me, Russell…did you have any empathy for Jimmy? Or did you hate him as much as readers will? (I ask because oddly enough I find myself eventually empathizing with a lot of my villains. Doesn’t say much for me.)
RJ: Someone said the villain must be written as if he is the hero of his own story. I really focused on that for Jimmy, how he thinks that none of the bad decisions he’s made put him in the hole he starts the story in, just bad luck and people hating him. Then he goes megalomaniac when finally he gets the power he thinks he’s deserved his whole life. But nah, he’s a spittoon of a human being and I liked the ending of the book.
SRW: Q Island is a zombie book, yet not. I think what makes it more terrifying than your standard stalk and muncher is that the paleovirus is all too real, a common fear these days. Other than avoiding eating mammoth steaks, what would you advise people to do in such a situation?
RJ: Everyone but my friends and family should confront the infected with absolutely no weapons or game plan. It will leave a lot more canned food and ammunition for the important people. I’ll be living on a stolen thirty-foot sailboat with a lot of fishing gear and spindle-mounted miniguns on the bow and stern. Please call first before dropping by.
SRW: I'll bring mammoth steaks. Back to research, did you read up on the CDC and other emergency plans? Your scenario smacks of reality. (And I read in your afterword, that you don’t know anything about medical procedures and the likes. But your research paid off).
RJ: I did some research on CDC plans in the event of an emergency, then did some common sense extrapolation to match the scenario. All the real medical science credit goes to fellow author and nurse Rita Brandon, who seriously schooled me on infectious disease, hospital protocols, and trauma injuries. She deserves major props for keeping all that in the real world.
SRW: You don’t paint a very pretty picture of the government or humanity in general. (Of course there's Tamara and Eddie, two very likeable, sacrificing characters but they seem to be the minority). Now, horror as a general rule, is a very cynical genre. Do you consider yourself a cynic?
RJ: The inspiration for this story hit after watching what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. People were isolated and short on supplies. Society broke down in hours. There were stories of public bus drivers abandoning evacuation routes to save themselves. Police opened fire without provocation. The Superdome became a cesspool. And all this was in a situation where the water was guaranteed to recede. I wondered what would happen if this was on a larger, more permanent scale. Long Island fit the bill since it was just a few bridges, a tunnel, and some ferries away from being cut off from the world. So is Q Island cynical about the depths people might sink to in an emergency? I’m afraid it’s just realistic.
SRW: What’s up next on your keyboard?
RJ: Well, plans went awry after Samhain announced they were closing up shop. I had a novel under contract for next month called The Portal, about the Devil returning to a little island off Massachusetts to try again to open a portal between here and Hell. So that needs a home. I also have a serial killer thriller novel finished and a sequel to Q Island called Return to Q Island, where one man has to smuggle himself back to the island to save his mother and sister. (The place has gone seriously downhill since Melanie left.) So, I’m shopping all those titles around.
I will have a new collection of time travel stories called Forever Out of Time out on Kindle in June. It will be joining several other short story collections that range from horror to science fiction.
The easiest place to see everything I’ve written is on my Amazon page here:
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