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eSpec Books interviews Ty Drago, author of the novel Rags.
eSB: This is a unique book and somewhat difficult to define cleanly. How would you classify Rags, and why?
TD: It’s a fair question. On its surface, Rags is horror. There’s plenty of blood and plenty of scares. But on a deeper level, it’s a twisted coming-of-age tale. There’s a subtext of teenage empowerment and burgeoning power that smack of an origin story as well.
eSB: Without spoilers, how did you come up with the idea for the novel?
TD: I’m a Jersey Boy, born and raised. I grew up visiting the Jersey Shore, including Atlantic City. I remember Steel Pier. I saw the diving horse and walked in many of the places that Abby does in the book. In a lot of respects, Atlantic City today is a ghost of its former glory. There’s a sadness to the place that, when I visit, always calls out to me. I often find it a city of desperation and forced smiles as less and less of it returns with each passing year.
Strolling at night on the boardwalk, with the ocean roaring in the darkness and the casinos rising like monoliths against the sky, one can easily imagine a dark avenger moving through the shadows, looking for… what? Some shred of the once-glorious past of “America’s Playground?” A fading memory of music and laughter that isn’t accompanied by the bells and curses of the gambling floor?
Anyway, that’s more or less how Rags was born.
eSB: Your main protagonist is Abby, a teenage girl, what about the story inspired you to write from a perspective so different than your own? What challenges did you face in capturing the authentic feel you managed?
TD: There’s the old adage of “write what you know.” And I agree, to a point. More and more, however, I find myself asking, “But where’s the fun in that?”
Why did I write a novel told from the perspective of an orphaned sixteen-year-old girl from the streets? I guess because I wanted to see if I could. Pushing your own boundaries is, or should be, what art is all about. I poured everything I could into making Abby as authentic as possible. It wasn’t always easy. Since I had pretty much zero personal experience to draw on, I had to instead look to articles and novels about inner city life, especially works written in the early 1980s. Abby and her foster family were born from what I found there.
eSB: Do you foresee writing more stories with this character or in this world? Whichever your answer, why?
TD: Rags is a stand-alone book. That said, it has the “hook” for a sequel in it. But don’t ask me what such a sequel would look like. Should I ever find myself in a position to consider writing one, the story would have to be much more than simply “The Further Adventures of Rags.” I would need to find a new and (hopefully) unexpected way to sharpen my avenger’s edge, if you’ll pardon the pun.
eSB: Rags felt very much like a superhero origin story to me. Was that intentional and is there a reason behind the choices that lead to that?
TD: As I said earlier, I think Rags is definitely an origin story, of a sort. But I don’t think “superhero” applies. Rags is a creature of violence, too dark a character to even qualify as an anti-hero, at least as the term is typically understood. I wanted to avoid “redeeming” Rags. Instead, I tried to use him to explore the darkness inherent in all of us. No spoilers, though!
eSB: The novel takes place in Atlantic City, in the early 1980’s, how much of your personal experience did you draw on to recreate such an iconic city, and how much was research?
TD: When I’d resolved myself to telling this story, I went to the Atlantic City Library. There, I partnered with a librarian and, for some hours, the two of us poured over old newspapers and magazines. There’s surprisingly little documentation from the period just prior to the blaze that destroyed Steel Pier in December of 1982. What I’ve written is cobbled together from old brochures, tourist maps of the pier, and from forgotten articles in forgotten publications.
eSB: Have you ever incorporated aspects of your own experiences in your fiction? Tell us about it.
TD: I don’t know about “experiences.” Frankly, if some of the “experiences” in my novels had happened to me personally… well, that would be pretty awful!
That said, I do pay homage to people in my life. For example, in the Undertakers Series, the female lead, Helene Boettcher, is named after my wife. And some of the kids are named for children I grew up with. In Dragons, my SF novel that came out last year, Andy is named for my son and Kim and Shelton are named for my daughter and son-in-law. In the new one I’m writing, the heroine is named after a dear friend.
eSB: What haunts you as an author?
TD: These days? Pretty much nothing. But for a long time, I dealt with the angst of having to keep a day job and still pursue my true calling. It’s an old song in the writing world: you can’t make a living writing, but you don’t want to make a living doing anything else!
But, now that I’m retired and writing full-time, I guess you could say I’ve finally overcome that hurtle. I feels good, and I pay back whatever fates have given me this opportunity by being as prolific as I possibly can.
eSB: You are also the author of the Undertakers series, about kids killing zombies. What drew you to appreciate the horror genre? What inspired you to write in it?
TD: Horror’s fun. It’s as simple as that. Of all the arts, writing is the most intimate; every “performance” is entirely one-on-one, author and reader. That intimacy allows for an emersion on the reader’s part that the author, if he or she is worth their salt, takes full advantage of. I like to creep out my reader, present them with a dark and grim scenario and then pull them along with me through that scenario, showing them a little more, page by page, as the tension builds. Doing so is both my responsibility and my privilege in this covenant with my reader.
eSB: Other than horror, what other genres do you write in? Tell us something about your other works and what makes those genres different from writing horror.
TD: Horror isn’t all I write by any means. A science fiction novel of mine, Dragons, was released by the good folks at eSpec Books in 2021. There’s also Torq (2018) and Phobos, way back in 2004. I’m currently finishing up a new novel that’s set in the very near future. More on that later. And I’ve authored two historical novels. One, called The Franklin Affair (2001), was my first published novel. The other, The New Americans, should be coming out in 2022, I think.
eSB: What is your least favorite aspect of being an author, and why?
TD: LOL! Okay, here’s the truth of that. My “First Read” is my wife, Helene. It’s been this way for decades. I write a novel, make it as perfect and clean as I can, and then give to her to edit. She usually gets the third or fourth revision. Then she proceeds to pick it apart, challenging anything from word choices, to characters, to entire themes. She’s ruthless and thorough. Yet, after she’s done, the final book is always stronger for her efforts—”forged in fire,” you might say.
Still, every time I hand her a story, a part of me shrivels up inside…
eSB: Could you tell us about one of your most amusing experiences promoting your books?
TD: I used to guest speak at a lot of middle schools while promoting the Undertakers. Overall, I visited nearly a hundred of them in six states from Maine to Kentucky, and gave talks on writing, ran workshops, and did Q&As in front of a total of about 60,000 kids between the ages of 9 and 13. Some of the questions and comments I got were nothing short of hilarious. One girl at a school library booksigning made the loud comment that “You’re so relatable!” Another boy told me he wanted me to add a water cannon to an Undertakers story and give him full credit for the idea, with photo. Yet another penned a truly disturbing piece of flash fiction for a workshop: “Three starving men boarded a boat to cross a lake. When they reached the other side, there were only two of them, but they were full!”
eSB: What is one thing you would share that would surprise your readers?
TD: My younger fanbase is frequently stunned when they find out how old I am. I’ll be sixty-two in 2022, which makes me even older than their parents! It came up dozens of times at those aforementioned school visits and, whenever I revealed my age, a shocked murmur would travel through my audience that always tickled me.
eSB: What are some of your other works readers can look for?
TD: There’s a plan in the works to release my historical novel, The New Americans, sometime in late 2022. This is a “family saga” that’s based on a series of cassette tapes that my father made right before his death in 1992. The story is loosely based on my grandfather’s life as a Sicilian immigrant struggling to assimilate in 1915 America.
AND I’m excited to report that my newest novel, Checkmate, is just about ready for prime time (I’m dating myself with that metaphor). This is a near-future retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. It tells the story of a gender-fluid vigilante who uses disguise, guile, and plain old chutzpah to expose corrupt politicians, all told from the perspective of the young journalist assigned to investigate this person’s crusade.
eSB: As a horror author, where do you find support for your writing?
TD: I recently joined the Horror Writers Association and have been slowly immersing myself in that organization and its community. It’s one of the most supportive and passionate writers groups I’ve ever come across.
On a broader note, however, most of my support as a writer comes from my wife, Helene. She’s believed in my efforts from the beginning, and has devoted her time, her emotional energy, and her considerable intellect to help get me to where I am. I’ve dedicated more than one book to her and named one of my heroines after her. These are all worthy gestures, but insufficient to truly express the depth of my love and gratitude. It’s no exaggeration to say that you would not be reading these words if not for her.
eSB: What advice would you give aspiring horror writers?
TD: Follow the Five Rules of Writing! What are they, you ask? Well, they are this: 1) Write; 2) Finish what you write; 3) Edit what you write; 4) Submit what you write for publication; and 5) Go write something else.
Do that, over and over, without giving up—and you’ll get there, regardless of the genre.
eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?
TD: Well, I’ve started working on an audiobook of Dragons, read by Yours Truly. And Helene and I are planning a new season to our podcast “Legacy.” This one will focus on the efforts to publish and publicize The New Americans.
eSB: How can readers find out more about you?
TD: I’m all over social media. You can also email me at email@example.com. I love it when people reach out!
Ty Drago is a full-time writer and the author of ten published novels, including his five-book Undertakers series, the first of which has been optioned for a feature film. Torq, a dystopian YA superhero adventure, was released by Swallow’s End Publishing in 2018. Add to these one novelette, myriad short stories and articles, and appearances in two anthologies. He’s also the founder, publisher, and managing editor of ALLEGORY (www.allegoryezine.com), a highly successful online magazine that, for more than twenty years, has features speculative fiction by new and established authors worldwide.
Ty’s currently just completed The New Americans, a work of historical fiction and a collaborative effort with his father, who passed away in 1992. If that last sentence leaves you with questions, check out his podcast, “Legacy: The Novel Writing Experience,” to get the whole story.
He lives in New Jersey with his wife Helene, plus one cat and one dog.
Learn more about Ty Drago:
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