Snake-handling preachers and cleaning house: Steve Rasnic Tem on writing 'Blood Kin'

The dark Southern noir novel Blood Kin is out this week in the UK and Ireland (and already out in North America!). So we asked master of horror, Steve Rasnic Tem, to tell us about the research he undertook to create this dark tale of the Great Depression, snake-handling, and how his own experiences influenced his latest book...

by Steve Rasnic Tem

I think I first knew I was going to write Blood Kin around the time I understood that what I really wanted to do with my life was write fiction.

I was a senior in high school, and although I hadn't sold anything yet I was still submitting sf stories regularly to Ted White at Amazing (which I loved for its “pulpy” feel). But the tale which had already gotten under my skin was Blood Kin (or The Kudzu Don’t Flower as I had it titled back then). I had no idea what kind of book it was going to be. I knew it wasn’t science fiction, but I understood there would be something beyond the everyday about it. I didn’t really understand or read horror. I’d read and enjoyed ghost stories, but that wasn’t horror, or at least I didn’t think so.

I had started to struggle through Faulkner for the first time. I didn’t yet “get” Faulkner, but I saw some things in his fiction which resonated with what I hoped Blood Kin would someday be.

One of the appeals of this book was that the required research seemed minimal. After all, the story took place in the general area of southwest Virginia where I’d grown up and still lived. I knew some of it would take place during the Depression, but much of what I saw around me was little changed since the Thirties.

But as I quickly learned while jotting down descriptive passages, disconnected dialog, and plot ideas into my notebook, having just the right details at hand while you’re writing is everything. It’s the difference between being in the story and writing about the story. So I started paying more attention to the local papers, clipping old-timers’ reminiscences. I did research on the clothing they wore. I read some of the books that might have been in their schools. But more importantly, I asked my mother and father for their memories, I listened to my aunts and uncles, my grandparents—all of whom were natural born storytellers. My mother and two of my aunts taught in one room schools (one of my aunts eventually wrote an essay about it). My father worked in a grist mill as a young man, and after becoming a game warden bought an old country store for some side-income. It had been in operation, with minimal changes, since the thirties. My brothers and I worked there from time to time (our first job: shoveling years of bat corpses and guano from the upstairs rooms).

In college I attended a couple of secret snake-handling services at a mountain church—they were illegal in the state of Virginia (and believe me, I sat as far away from the snakes as possible). My father, knowing I was still interested in the subjects covered in this book—although I hadn't written anything on the story for awhile—continued to send me letters concerning his experiences in the region for many years.

And most recently, while putting in the finishing touches to the manuscript, I visited my mother in a nursing facility near my home town. Some of her reminiscences from that weekend added the final coloration to Sadie’s story.

I think it was the research, in fact, which finally drove me to complete this book. I had bins of it, you see, and a bookcase full of reference materials. I needed the space. So one afternoon I sat down with it all, a fresh outline in hand, and made piles of what “fit” that outline, and what “doesn’t fit.” From the “doesn’t fit” pile I retrieved a few precious items—letters etc.—and dumped or gave away the rest. After delivering the manuscript to Solaris I similarly eliminated the “fit” pile.

So sometimes writing a novel isn't just about writing a novel—it’s a way of cleaning house.

Blood Kin is out now in North America in paperback and ebook, and is published this Thursday in the UK and Ireland in paperback and ebook. It will also be available direct from the Rebellion Publishing ebook store.

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