2016 Snapshot: Vale Rocky Wood

By Greg Chapman.

rocky-portrait-smallRocky Wood (19 October 1959 – 1 December 2014) was an award-winning New Zealand-born Australian writer and researcher best known for his books about horror author Stephen King.

I was fortunate to not only have known Rocky personally as a friend, but I also was privileged to have illustrated the graphic novel Witch Hunts, which he wrote with Lisa Morton in 2012.

Sadly Rocky passed away in December 2014 from complications arising from Motor Neurone Disease/ALS. Rocky leaves a lasting legacy to the horror community as President of the Horror Writers Association. He is also regarded as an expert of Stephen King’s works and was awarded several Bram Stoker Awards for his writing. He was also a mentor to many up-and-coming authors within the horror community. He was also a loving father and grandfather.

In 2011 I conducted the following interview with Rocky, where he talks about his research on King and his MND diagnosis.

Tell me about your first introduction to horror fiction

Unsurprisingly, this was at the hands of Stephen King. I really didn’t read horror in my youth – in fact I don’t believe I read even Poe until my twenties.

My taste up until then ran more to classic fiction like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Gone With the Wind’; historical fiction, including Michener and obscure but brilliant books like ‘Andersonville’ (McKinley Kantor) and ‘A Distant Trumpet’ (Paul Horgan); and political thrillers such as Allen Drury’s ‘Advise and Consent’ series (you’ll note a bias toward American fiction). My guilty pleasure was Robert Ludlum! And I read huge amounts of non-fiction – history and biography in particular. Then came the day I went to the movies to see the latest hit, ‘Carrie’.

When did your “healthy obsession” with Stephen King begin? What was the first book of King’s that you read and what was that moment you knew you would become a lifelong fan?

That night at the movies, of course! It was early in 1977 – the next day was a Saturday and in those days in New Zealand shops were only open until lunchtime. I headed to the three bookshops in downtown Wellington to buy ‘Carrie’ and none had it, so I walked off with ‘Salem’s Lot’. Within a day, Mr King had captured me for a lifetime!

I guess I didn’t know it then – it probably took a book or two more – ‘The Shining’, and then ‘The Stand’ before I knew I needed to read everything King had written and would ever write. As a university student I didn’t have a lot of spare cash, but I bought King, Michener and Ludlum in hardback, as they came out (Clancy supplanted Ludlum when the latter got rather repetitive), which was the indication I was hooked.

I know the big fellow doesn’t like being reminded ‘The Stand’ is a favourite of most fans, bemoaning that ‘Stand-fans’ wouldn’t care if he’d never written another word but that is really not true. ‘The Stand’ welded many of us on and we hung out, we still hang out, for every new book and short story.

What inspired you to want to collate everything King has ever written/created. How did you motivate yourself to even take on such a task?

Well, I’d been a freelance journalist through my university years and did quite well both in terms of getting published and in terms of earnings in those days. I pitched a few books (non-fiction) but didn’t get a bite. Then my corporate career took off and I began concentrating on that and left writing behind. I came back to it twenty years later, at the beginning of this century (wow, think about that, being far enough into a new century that we can talk that way) when I woke up one day and remembered how much I had enjoyed writing.

I am one of those people who can work a 10-12 hour workday and then write for a few hours, at the end of which I feel totally refreshed and relaxed. Writing is cathartic for me. So, when I decided to write again I retained my earlier view that if you write you should get paid for it (not for everyone I know, but as a freelancer you soon learn to focus on consistent, paying markets). I basically developed a business plan for myself that played on my perceived strengths – I knew I could get paid for non-fiction and I knew King’s work intimately; combined with what the market might want – if a book about King couldn’t sell, what would?

Then I made a big mistake (one that paid off). I formed a partnership with David Rawsthorne and Norma Blackburn to compile ‘The Complete Guide to the Works of Stephen King’ – this turned out to be over 6000 pages on compact disk – an ‘electronic book’ (which was unusual in 2003). The mistake was the word ‘Complete’ – I am a perfectionist and having decided to be ‘complete’ meant I would have to somehow access the really obscure King stuff, including his Papers at the University of Maine Fogler Library. And in those Papers are unpublished novels and so on that can only be read with King’s written permission. A daunting task indeed, especially as I live about as far away from Maine as you can get and I had no contact with King.

What to do? I wrote to his office saying I’d like to travel to Maine from Australia and I had allowed three weeks to sit in the Fogler reading the materials there for my project but that I needed SK’s written permission to read the ‘Restricted’ works. To my delight I got a very quick answer from Steve’s wonderful PA (who is now a good personal friend) saying something to the effect that Steve had said if I was silly enough to travel all the way from Australia and sit in a Library for three weeks I was welcome to read the Restricted materials!

The motivation really wasn’t too hard – when I set my mind to something it gets done. And after all I was setting myself a task of reading and summarizing everything written by my favorite author!

How did it feel when you found those obscure pieces King wrote that were thought lost?

Well, it was I who found them, as I travelled to Maine in 2002 and then another five or so times since on my research. It felt fantastic – the whole process was like being an archaeologist – following a range of obscure clues and then determining where to look.

The first lot of a dozen or so stories I found were all in the Fogler – some were in the public boxes and to this day I remain surprised that other researchers hadn’t found them. Each time I found one my spirits lifted, as I had the joy of first reading the story and then revealing the fact that it even existed to the world of King fans.

There is an important point to make here – I believe King to be the equivalent of a Twain or a Dickens. So much of their work may have been lost for all we know and I am determined that should not be the case with King. Future generations of readers, critics and historians should know about as many of the things he’s written as possible, no matter how obscure. Many of them inform his development as a writer, and much of the earlier stuff reflects themes he would later develop in his well-known popular work.

Almost every historian bemoans lost material about their subject (say Lincoln) and I hope I am contributing by documenting works that would otherwise have been lost to the sands of time. I want to make a point here – in the end all this material is actually Stephen King’s – if he wants to bury something or destroy it that is entirely his right. But when he lets it out (say by putting it in his Papers), or when it was published but just ‘lost’ (‘The King Family and the Wicked Witch’ for instance) then I am pretty sure he thinks it fair game. One thing I know about Mr King is that he doesn’t believe in censorship and that would include his own materials gathered from the lost corners of America.

Perhaps more interesting in terms of finding lost pieces was his non-fiction. Most people don’t know he has published over 800 pieces of non-fiction.

Justin Brooks and I decided to write a book, ‘Stephen King: The Non-Fiction’ that would cover every single piece. There I was again, setting myself a nearly impossible task. Back to Maine and visiting small town libraries, historical societies and so on – looking for material King may have written and published in his high school and university years. And there they were – forty odd new pieces, ranging from a defence of America’s role in Vietnam (!) through to pieces about basketball in his local newspaper.

Again, I am pleased to have found those and brought them to the attention of future researchers. Some of these works might have been lost forever if we hadn’t ‘dug them up’ and put arrangements in place for them to be preserved. Needless to say, I haven’t given up (neither has Justin) and we still regularly turn up ‘lost’ or unknown pieces (largely non-fiction).

Have you ever met Stephen?

I have never met Steve.

This may seem strange but remember I live over ten thousand miles away. During my trips to Maine he has been unavailable and I totally respect that – he recently said even those professionals closest to him often forget that writers need clear time in which to practice their craft. So, I have been very careful to respect his time and his privacy.

He and his office have been incredibly generous to me (in fact, King is incredibly generous full stop – both to the horror and writing communities, and to ‘community’ in general). One of the restricted unpublished novels I read was ‘Sword in the Darkness’ – not a great book, but buried in it was a lengthy chapter (a horror tale) that shone a light on the King that would burst into our lives just a few years after he wrote it. In terms of his development it is an important piece and one of the characters (Edie Rowsmith) deserved a life outside a cardboard box in the Library.

I asked if we could publish that chapter in my first printed book, ‘Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished’ and free Edie from her darkness, and King kindly agreed. He later agreed to allow a ‘lost’ poem, ‘Dino’ to be included in the same book. And he allowed me to republished an obscure piece of non-fiction, ‘My Little Serrated Security Blanket’ in ‘Stephen King: The Non-Fiction’. I send him every ‘lost’ piece I find, so that he has a copy.

***NOTE: Rocky did in fact get to meet Stephen at the opening of in the US Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the musical Stephen wrote with John Mellencamp

How did you get involved in the Horror Writers Association?

When I realized my foreseeable writing future was going to be tied to the horror genre I decided to join the premier writers’ association for that genre, which is of course the HWA. I was welcomed whole-heartedly and immediately.

Quite soon thereafter I got a Bram Stoker Award nomination for ‘Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished’ and so I decided to travel to Toronto and attend the Awards. Again, a whole-hearted welcome and I made friends that weekend who are still my good friends in the community today.

I am not one to join and watch other people do work. Over the years I have had leadership positions in political parties, environmental groups, sporting clubs, and organisations like the Australian American Association, mostly when I get involved its ‘boots and all’. So, when I decided to help HWA it was going to be all or nothing.

The first time I ran for Trustee I failed to get elected (yikes!) but I didn’t give up and was elected the following year. Two years later I was tapped for President, presumably on the basis of my efforts.

What many people don’t realize is that today’s HWA is delivered to our members by about 100 (yes, one hundred) volunteers, all working away quietly in the background. They range from the Board to the Web team, through the Juries and on to areas like the Membership Committee and the Bram Stoker Awards Committee.

I credit any success the HWA has had in recent years to its leaders (such as Deb LeBlanc, Vince Liaguno, Marge Simon and Lisa Morton) and to all these volunteers who believe in our mission enough to give up their spare time (and writing time at that!) to help strengthen the Association and deliver our daily needs. And that’s lots more in the planning tray by the way.

Horror has been a massive part of your life…does it still have the same meaning today? It’s changed so much with the evolution of the e-book. Where do you see its future?

That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Horror is the original genre, probably the original form of oral story-telling around the cave-people’s fire. It’s not going away, ever.

The e-book (and I believe that is only in its infancy) won’t change the basis of the genre – which is story. It just changes the delivery mode, making it even more accessible. It has its dangers – there’s some real crud being self-published, but that will self correct and there’s plenty of really good material coming to light in ebooks that wouldn’t have got published in print.

The ebook has so far to go – the inclusion of hyperlinks, research material, still graphics and live video, all of which will enhance the reader’s experience.

And I am one who believes the printed book will never leave us (maybe I’m an optimist) – even if it means people will use Print on Demand to buy a book they treasure and want to display in their home or office, after they read it electronically. All change brings both opportunity and challenge, and the same applies to the horror genre.

We must try to stay with the curve without over-reacting or missing our chances. We can experiment and fail, that’s okay. To me there are more than enough horror writers and small press publishers to try out all the new opportunities as they come along. Some will lead, some will follow, some will wither away. That’s life.

Last year Horrors: Great Tales of Fear and their Creators graphic novel was published by McFarland, with Glenn Chadbourne as artist. How did the idea come about – and why a graphic novel?

The publisher approached me to write a ‘graphic novel’. Apart from one short story I had never published any fiction, and I had barely attempted to write any. And I told them so, but they were very insistent and asked me to pitch any idea.

This one came out of nowhere – the idea that the great horror tale may not be as unplanned as we might think. I delighted in being able to go back to Mary Shelley’s, Poe’s and Stoker’s original material (among other authors) and present them again, much as they were written (our ‘memory’ of ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Dracula’ is infected by the various pop culture adaptations) and to weave in the true lives of their creators. Most of these people lived lives full of tragedy (as did most people all around the world before say the end of the Second World War). To bring that to the reader’s attention and weave it into a storyline was a lot of fun.

I knew Glenn Chadbourne through the King community (he has illustrated King on a number of occasions, most spectacularly with Cemetery Dance’s, ‘The Secretary of Dreams’ series). Strangely, Glenn and I were born on the same day in the same year, he in Maine and I in New Zealand. And I was lucky enough to visit him in Maine, stay with him, and enjoy a wonderful lobster dinner while we were working on the book. He is possibly the most brilliant horror illustrator working today and it was a great honor to have him illustrate my prose. And he’s just a wonderful man to boot!

Do you have “another” favourite author?

Tricky question that. I read widely in areas outside horror – particularly biography and history. I have a few historians I read every time their work is published (eg, Martin Gilbert) and I still love to read my old fiction favorites like John Irving (who gets better by the book). I particularly enjoy Simon Winchester’s books, which are a mix of geography, geology and history and full of obscure and interesting facts.

Late last year you were diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, which degrades the muscles and is invariably fatal, yet amazingly it hasn’t affected your passion as an author and HWA ambassador. How do you manage it?

Yes, I was. When you are told you have a fatal illness and there is no hope of recovery or survival you face that moment of truth. You can curl up in a ball, you can limit your horizons to your family and friends (a very valid choice), or you can continue living life just as before. That last was my choice.

I have always lived life ‘big’. I’ve had a great life – lots of travel all over the world, great friends and wonderful family, and many ‘communities’ in which I have participated (politics, sport and horror among them).

I had been fortunate enough to see my favorite sporting teams play in great stadiums – the New Zealand All Blacks at home or at Cardiff, Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Boston Red Sox at Fenway. I’d made friends at conventions all over the world – including in the old Yugoslavia. I’d traipsed archaeological sites in the jungles of Mexico with my friend, Erich von Daniken (author of ‘Chariots of the Gods?’). I’d met political, sporting and artistic leaders and worked for the causes I believed in, such as the Australian-American alliance.

And now I was being told that within 2-5 years I would be dead, and that my body would slowly give out in a manner that meant I would lose my ability to speak, walk, type and finally move at all. So I made that choice I mentioned and I also chose not to be defined by the disease. I would define IT – for me at least.

In the time I had left I would continue as much as my normal life as I could and I would actually fit in many of the remaining things some people would call a bucket list (I hate the term).  So I travelled to Egypt and Lahaina (Hawaii), I worked on a couple of books, I tried to spend even more time with family and friends, I went to see Manchester United play in a European final at Wembley, visited Auschwitz and the D-Day/Normandy battlefields, and saw my beloved All Blacks once again crown champions of the World (and in our homeland at that) and so on.

And I am throwing my last best efforts into helping the HWA be a better and more sustainable organisation for my Presidency. I had been elected only months before I was diagnosed and took up the role only eleven days after I received the news. Hopefully, by the time I stand down, we will have grown our membership even more (we are already up from 400 odd to over 650 in a year); we will have bedded down the Jury process for the Bram Stoker Awards; we will have set manuals and processes in place for our major operating areas like the Web Team, the Stokers and the Board; we will have relaunched our Chapters; we will have a whole new website; and we will have delivered on a number of events like the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend last June on Long Island that received high praise from the horror community. We will have an HWA that continues to be grow and be successful long after I am gone.

As to writing, I had a couple more books in me that just had to be delivered. You know how it is – you don’t really have a choice! To answer your question, I guess I have always lived life with passion and I don’t intend that to change just because my body is failing me.

For more information on Rocky’s works visit – http://www.rockywoodauthor.com/

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