Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall – The Cowboy and the Vampire

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

The Cowboy and the Vampire brings together two of the most iconic characters – cowboys and vampires – and crashes them together in a story about love, culture clash and, of course, evil plans to take over the world. We’ve thrown in a healthy dose of laugh-out-loud humor, a nuanced portrayal of the new West along with a recasting of the Vampire myth as a function of religious yearnings. We wrote this book together 10 years ago and it enjoyed strong sales then. We embarked on some other joint and solo projects, but life (parenthood, careers, college tuition, etc.) got in the way. Just as we found ourselves ready to re-embark on our writing careers, our publisher decided to rerelease the book to take advantage of the current vampire craze. We are excited about that!

Tell us something about yourself.

Clark: I was born in Texas but grew up mostly in Scotland and then Montana. In Montana, I was raised on a working ranch so did all the expected cowboy things – riding, roping, hunting, branding cattle, etc. The openness of the landscape and the solitude (the nearest neighbor was five miles away, the nearest town – 2,500 people – was 30 miles away) was an amazing experience that, along with the educational foundations established in Scotland, provided a constant source of inspiration, very little distractions and a chance to really be alone with my thoughts … and to read voraciously. In this solitude, I found my calling and my voice early.

Kathleen: I was born and raised in Washington DC; as a very young child I watched the social revolutions of the 1970s as they manifested in protests, riots and uncertainty in our city. I used to hang out as a kid alone in the corridors of the Supreme Court, wandering around the Capitol, counting the steps in front of the Library of Congress – long before terrorism had shut those areas down. These early solitary experiences made an impression and in hindsight I can see gave me an unusually broad view of the world that has inspired me in a number of creative pursuits.

What inspired you to write this book?

We wanted to write a book together and struggled for a few months to find a topic that we found intriguing, fun and something we could sustain and something that benefited from our distinct backgrounds. This was the early stages of our relationship, we were reconnecting after a tumultuous break up, so the idea of writing together seemed to make sense as a way to channel our energies into something constructive that we could share. Sitting at a truck stop café in Madras, Oregon, we explored the whole “write what you know” paradigm. Clark knew about the life of the cowboy and Kathleen was deeply engaged at that time in researching spirituality and mysticism. We sketched out the plot highlights on the back of a paper placemat and then, because we were living in 200 miles apart at the time, began mailing chapters back and forth.

How did you choose the title?

From the beginning, we saw this book as a collision of two iconic archetypes, and wanted to draw immediate attention to the power between them. Calling out the two main characters seemed to be the most powerful statement of how the book immediately juxtaposed the two cultures – Gothic and Western – and seemed to effectively presage the undertones of comedy. The original subtitle – A Very Unusual Romance – was intended to convey the love story at the heart of it and was triggered by something Kathleen read in a very old book in the Library of Congress. In this second version, we moved more toward the exotic with a redesigned cover dripping sensuality … and blood! So the subtitle was changed to A Darkly Romantic Mystery.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

Surprisingly, the original process was pretty easy, all things considered, and may have left us ill-prepared for what happened next. We originally submitted the manuscript, cold, to maybe a dozen agents and publishers with the expected response (or lack of…). We were used to that from our many solo projects, but we had a feeling that this would be a strong and marketable work. On a hunch, we sent a copy to Llewellyn and at the time, they were taking unsolicited submission. They liked it, took a chance on us and it turned out well, then ten years later it turned out well again (although it’s be rereleased through an imprint, Midnight Ink). After that, we had several manuscripts rejected roundly and lost impetus as we built more substantial professional careers (day jobs). Still, we never stopped writing creatively and now that we have a fresh tailwind, have high hopes for a number of new projects.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

Clark: I started writing creatively in fourth grade. I still remember putting together stories with ridiculously long strings of adjectives that made my classmates laugh. For a small school in the middle of nowhere, I must have received some great support because I had an unshakable faith in my writing. I’m not sure why … the poetry phase that came next must have been insufferable (I’m sure my mom would remember that and agree). In college, Montana State, I got better by taking some poetry and writing classes from talented people. After that, I was hooked and continued to write creatively, without stop. The content hopefully got better, but I also realized I had enough talent to write professionally and, thanks to Kathleen, was able to start a freelance career on her professional coattails that turned into my current job as a Communications strategist for a national financial services company. I still, of course, prefer fiction and poetry to earnings releases and company newsletters.

Kathleen: I fell into the writing life without any real intent – my early career was spent working as a petroleum geologist (yes, you read that correctly) until I discovered that writing about science and energy was more fun than fieldwork and petrographic analysis. I freelanced for more than a decade, was a staff writer for McGraw-Hill and a regional stringer for Financial Times/Energy. Now I work for a major university where I still get to write about science along with health and policy. But it was about 10 years ago, when Clark and I wrote this book, that I decided to commit the remainder of my life and energy to serious long-form writing and to make creative writing the focus of an artistic life.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Given the demands of our jobs, we write whenever and wherever we can, but strive to do something creative at least daily. That’s shifted a bit as we engage in the marketing side of the re-release. More time spent working on our website content, Facebook page, connecting with reviewers and interviewers, and working on video clips. But we still are sustained by the creative efforts underlying all of them. As far as rituals, as close as we get to that is the fact that Clark writes almost everything in long hand first, in a sketchbook style notebook, and then types it in later. Kathleen writes first drafts on a computer or lap top, usually working faster than her fingers can keep up.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

We are lucky in that with two people focused on the same project, things like coming up with names means someone else to bounce ideas off of for an immediate reaction. We often work in variations on the names of people we like or those that have inspired us along the way and, occasionally, our own pets. Rex, for example, is a dog central to the Cowboy and Vampire. He’s named after our dog Rexie who, though now gone, was a very good dog and provided us with great material. No doubt there will be a cat in the sequel named after, or similar to, Silver.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

One of the things we learned from this process, as well as the professional trajectories we’ve been on, is the importance of marketing and really building a “brand” if you want to connect to readers. As writers, we like to think that our work will rise to the top based on its own merits and that’s true to a certain extent, but there so many talented writers out there, and readers are faced with an avalanche of choices – especially now that self-publishing is emerging as a viable channel. Making sure people understand the value of your work and why they should buy it instead of any of a thousand other books requires a very conscious effort. Marketing has sort of a bad reputation as just soulless advertising more suited for the business world, but it’s important to have a plan or at least identify some ways to make your work stand out from the very large pack. Luckily, there are so many free and powerful tools to help with that. Social media, for example. And writers are already creative by nature, so it just requires setting aside some time which, even though it’s free, is a precious resource for most writers since it cuts into our time to create.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

We are in a bit of unique position because we are doing it all over again and we are definitely doing it differently. Specifically, we’re putting great amount of effort into the marketing side of things. It’s not nearly as fun and individually rewarding as the act of writing, but we didn’t do enough of that the first time around. As a consequence, our trajectory stalled. Of course, we didn’t have the tools available then – Facebook, twitter, video, etc. – and we are taking full advantage of them. Part of that requires slightly redirecting the creative impulse into smaller projects, but as long as we’re able to work together we’re able to enjoy the process.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

Clark reads mostly nonfiction and lately has been focused on World War One and the revival of Spiritualism in America about that time. A fascinating point in history when so much changed and so much was interconnected – for example, advances in technology made slaughter on an industrial scale possible and the huge casualties associated with the Great War ultimately led so many to turn to spiritualism to try and communicate with their lost loved ones. Some of my favorite authors include Timothy Egan (his The Worst Hard Time was tremendous), David Gray (Straw Dogs was life-changing), Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel was seminal) and David Grann (The Lost City of Z. captured so many of my interests in one book!).

Kathleen was hooked early on the Russians – starting with the “traditionalists” of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, but later expanding to Soviet writers (Bulgakov) discovered writers (Tsypkin) and contemporary (Sorokin). Lighter fiction but still using a narrative lens to examine social changes is also a favorite; Shteyngart and Kunzru come quickly to mind.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

We’re working a sequel tentatively called Blood and Whiskey. The marketing demands for the current rerelease are keeping us from spending too much time on it, but we’ve roughed out the main plot points and are starting to bring it to life. It’s going to be a wild, entertaining ride with some unique plot twists that, we think, will further shake up the genre.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Be brutally honest with yourself about your talents and get a little better every day. Read constantly and write even more. Never give up; the writing life should be sustaining regardless of publishing success – we do this because we have to. If possible, (and this one is really hard…) find a life partner who can challenge and support your efforts and you theirs … struggling to find time to be creative in the face of career and family demands and the constant rejection upon rejection is greatly blunted by a supportive partner with a shared world view. Alternatively, find a good writing group and get deeply involved with it. Learn to take criticism, and act on upon it when necessary and let it bounce off when not. And network. Constantly network. And never give up.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The Cowboy and Vampire is an intelligent romp and anyone who enjoys a good story will like it. One of our best friends called it “intelligent trash,” and we’re still friends. It’s a little campy, very smart and a lot of fun. Two audiences in particular will love it: those who enjoy vampire fiction and those who enjoy western fiction. Vampire fans will enjoy the fresh treatment we give to the undead, casting it almost as a religion with its own bible, acolytes and rituals dating back to the dawn of time. As for the western readers, we’ve deconstructed the golden myth of the Old West and reassembled it, lovingly, to capture what means to live in the New West, besieged on all sides by environmentalists, technological advancements, vegetarians and … alpacas. Plus, it’s at times laugh-out loud funny.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

Readers and potential readers should check out our web page – It’s got a lot of fun content including an Ask a Cowboy advice column and a “Vlog” – a Vampire’s blog that covers some interesting territory. We also have a facebook page – that has even more material, fun links, pictures, videos and occasionally – contests. In fact, we sent a signed first edition to our 666th fan.