by Jason Harris
Rod Labbe has been a freelance writer since 1977. His work has appeared in such publications as Fangoria, Gorezone, Starlog, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Muscle & Fitness, and Autograph Collector magazine. He has written his first novel, The Blue Classroom, which is a ghost story and will be published by Samhain Publishing this coming May. He is currently working on his second novel, which will be published by Samhain in 2015.
JH: When you started freelancing in 1984, what publications did you write for?
RL: My writing/freelance career actually began in the fall of 1977, not 1984. That’s when I landed a work-study job as a reporter with The University Free Press weekly newspaper (University of Southern Maine). I was a sophomore, totally green, and had never written anything outside of short stories that were strictly for my own enjoyment. What I lacked in cred, however, I more than made up for with dedication, discipline and determination (the “three Ds,” as I call them). From 1977 to 1981, I contributed articles every week to the UFP, ranging from theatre reviews to editorials to sports pieces and pretty much everything in-between. No limits! I also found time to edit the campus literary magazine, The Presumpscot Review, published annually. All of that was great, a wonderful hands-on training ground–even more significant, since I’ve never taken a Journalism course, not one.
I continued this kind of writing (including editing The Maine Review, a literary magazine at the University of Maine) as a graduate student at the University of Maine in Orono. During the summer of 1984, I stepped away from the collegiate environment and submitted work to an outside publication. That was for a magazine called Mainely Local, published out of Central Maine, where I lived. I’d seen an article about it in my hometown newspaper, was intrigued, and gave the editor a call. We met the next day at a local eatery/bar. She told me about her publishing plans–really quite ambitious–and welcomed me aboard as a writer. The one glitch? No pay, just comp copies. That was ok; I realized the exposure and experience would be invaluable. I stayed with them for a year and a half (while in school and also following graduation), sometimes generating articles on my own, but mostly doing ‘filler’ and ‘fluff’ assignments–which I hated.
From tiny acorns mighty Oaks grow, I’ve found. That stint with Mainely Local gave me the gumption to seek out other venues–which I did in March of 1985, two months prior to leaving the University of Maine. That’s when I sent out an interview to MuscleMag International (a bodybuilding monthly) and a short story, entitled “Pumpkin Head,” to Footsteps magazine (small press, non-paying). Lo and behold, both were accepted! And MuscleMag paid me $100! I was on my way!
JH: Do you have a specific writing style?
RL: Hmm. If I had to pinpoint a “style” for my freelancing–which has been and still is 95% non-fiction–I’d say ‘conversational.’ Interviews can be tricky things. A sense of comfortable ease should underscore the dialogue. Almost from the get-go, I settled on a laid-back, conversational style. It serves to present the individual profiled in a ‘down to earth’ manner; the reader will know this is a flesh and blood human and not merely an unreachable celebrity. I must also mention that I do all of my interviews over the phone so what’s transcribed is definitely ‘conversational.’
As for fiction, I’m not sure if I have a “style,” per se. I just write, edit, polish and tweak! Constantly! I was educated in a time when there was great emphasis on sentence structure, good grammar, spelling skills, etc.; therefore, I utilize all of that when I write. I never emulate nor “copy” any other writer; find your own voice–not necessarily a “style,” but it should be something you, as the writer, enjoys wearing like a comfortable sweater.
JH: You have written for genre publications such as Fangoria, Gorezone, and Starlog in the past. What were some of the topics you wrote about or what was the subject of your articles?
RL: Writing for Fangoria was my dream. I can still remember the first issue I ever bought–#9, featuring that great Motel Hell cover, on Friday, October 31, 1980. Yep, Halloween! I sat in my sun-washed dorm room, read the book from cover to cover, and drifted off into reverie. Ah! Someday, I told myself, I’m going to write for Fangoria. But how? I had no cred and no contacts, outside of living in Maine, the same place of [Fangoria’s] patron saint, Stephen King. At that point, I’d only been published by my campus newspaper!
I’m a believer in never letting go of your dreams, and if you pursue them doggedly enough, eventually they’ll become realities. That happened for me in 1986, when I sold my first article–an interview with novelist John (The Legacy) Coyne–to Fango. The next year, 1987, I sold another small piece about Maine author Rick Hautala, who sadly passed away last year. I finally ‘hit it big’ when I landed a star-making assignment: visiting the set of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989), in Maine. That generated four articles and led to more film set visits (all King- related: Graveyard Shift, The Langoliers, and Thinner). Gorezone surprised me, since I thought my interview with Pet Sematary’s director, Mary Lambert, was going into Fangoria. Instead, it ran in Gorezone and scored me my first cover!
The Starlog piece, on Steve Reeves–famous as the cinematic Hercules–was submitted cold, via an e-mail to the editor. After Stephen King’s Thinner was filmed in Maine the fall of 1995, I took a break from Fangoria. Little did I know that break would stretch fourteen years!
My path led back to Fango in 2010. Editor Tony Timpone had stepped down, and a new editor–Chris Alexander, formerly of Rue Morgue–took the reins. I sent Chris an e-mail and introduced myself, which opened the door to my second stint. Chris is great. He’s supportive, energetic, enthusiastic and smart. I have his ear, and that has created a strong bond between us. He’s given me some choice assignments, too, like covering Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie and a two-part retrospective on Pet Sematary (currently running). Alas, prior to Chris’ arrival, Fangoria had fallen on hard time, but now, it’s reclaimed the crown as America’s premiere publication dealing with ‘horror in entertainment.’ I’m glad!
JH: Were you always a freelancer or did you work as a staff writer for any of the the magazines that you wrote for?
RL: I’ve always freelanced. In the beginning, I gladly accepted work that was assigned to me and bit the proverbial bullet. That’s all part of the game of moving up on the ladder. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great having the financial security of being ‘on staff.’ Creatively, though, I’d find it incredibly stunting … unless I was editor.
JH: What were some of the articles you wrote for Muscle & Fitness, MuscleMag International and Iron Man magazines and Men’s Workout about?
RL: I got into the fitness/bodybuilding books quite by happenstance. When I edited The Maine Review, I interviewed two people who’d gone to Maine and ‘made it big’ in the outside world. One was novelist Stephen King. The other was a bodybuilder, Skip Robinson, who’d won his weight/height class at the Mr. World competition. The interviews saw print, and amazingly, I received more comment on Skip’s. Bingo, an idea was born–I decided to mail this off to a bodybuilding magazine. This was in March of 1985. The editor complimented my style and suggested I find someone “new and today” to profile. I took his advice, found a ‘new and today bodybuilder,’ Jeff King, and interviewed him. MuscleMag bought it, and voila! I had my first big freelance writing credit!
My most rewarding project as a bodybuilding/fitness writer was creating a Legends of Bodybuilding series for Iron Man magazine. This ran from 1998 into 2012, approximately four installments per year and all extensively researched and executed. I interviewed classic bodybuilders and provided workouts and photo support. The series was immensely popular and archived all over the web. Just Google ‘Rod Labbe,’ and you’ll find a Legends interview
The fitness magazine marketplace has taken a severe hit, and several publications I freelanced with have been cancelled. Diminished ad revenue forced others to drastically reduce page count. Considering this, I’m now concentrating my freelancing efforts on the horror genre. Fans there are a more loyal and a less fickle bunch, it seems. And new mags are popping up
JH: What were some of your favorite freelance pieces?
RL: I was born in that far away year of 1952, so what I did, played with, watched and observed growing-up now has “nostalgia appeal.” and nostalgia is BIG. Without exception, every article I’ve written and [every] interview I’ve done is tinged with the burnished glow of nostalgia.
I wrote four huge pieces for the late/lamented Autograph Collector magazine because I’d been an ‘autograph collector’ as a teen. All of my articles for Scary Monsters magazine stem from personal experience as a ‘monster kid.’ Writing about Dark Shadows, Vincent Price, Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Munsters and Aurora Monster models is a blast. There’s something to be said for living a relatively long life. I don’t have to research such things as Marilyn Monroe’s death, the first moon landing, the ’60s counterculture or JFK’s assassination–I lived through them.
JH: How did you come to write for these different magazines?
RL: Easy. I just decided to ‘go for it’ and submit my work. In the case of Fangoria, I had an interview already done and merely sent the editor a ‘snail mail’ (this was in 1986) asking if he’d be interested. He was! That’s all it took for me to get my foot into the Fangoria door. But how to keep it open? There’s the rub! You must use ingenuity and a bit of craftiness. Study the magazines you want to write for and establishing good connections with editors is key. Always produce professional work! No misspellings, use accurate quotes (if an interview), edit to a fault and make sure your articles shine.
JH: What would be your advice for writers who want to be freelancers?
RL: My first piece of advice: don’t expect riches or fame. Start this journey as a fun (emphasis on that word) hobby, and you’ll be much happier. The second tidbit: write what you like and THEN market it. If I’m intrigued by the subject matter, I’ll gladly do an article simply to put it ‘out there.’ The goal is to be published, first and foremost. Forget about money–you can think about that later. Working gratis will give you incredible exposure and fodder for your portfolio. If you’re in love with writing, like I am, it’s never a chore!
My third recommendation? Educate yourself. Learn HOW to write. It’s not merely the desire or the urge, you must have a modicum of talent and be willing to learn. That means listening to criticism, even if it angers you. And it also means seeking out legitimate critiques, not just reassuring pats on the head from parents, siblings, and loved ones. Parents will rarely give you the straight scoop–they don’t want to hurt your feelings. An editor has nothing emotionally invested in you, so it doesn’t matter to them if feelings are hurt when they reject your work. Rejection does hurt … but it also helps you grow as a writer.
When doing fiction, it’s a good idea to read beforehand. Go to the classics. Read Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, A Separate Peace. Watch films, too … but not junk. Watch films like Rebecca, Dead of Night, The Maltese Falcon, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Uninvited, Rosemary’s Baby, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Birds, The Exorcist, All About Eve, The Haunting, Sunset Boulevard, The Omen, Nightmare on Elm Street and Carrie (originals only, please). Don’t limit yourself! Embrace the full experience.
If you’re truly considering a freelance career, invest in a copy of the latest Writer’s Market (published annually). The book compiles the best markets and lists everything you need to know. Peruse the magazine racks at your favorite bookstore. Is there a magazine you read and have always yearned to write for? Go ahead and just do it! I’ve found that the proof is in the doing, not necessarily the planning and/or dreaming. You must make that extra effort to get your work to an editor. Sure, rejection might happen; it’s part of the game. But the genuine warriors push forward, despite the occasional speed bump.
JH: Your first novel, The Blue Classroom, will be published in May by Samhain Publishing. What’s it about?
RL: The Blue Classroom is a Maine-based ghost story involving a haunted Catholic school and the spirit of a cruel, vindictive nun. There’s an extensive flashback to 1957 near the beginning, but most of the action takes place in 1998. I hesitate to call The Blue Classroom an epic, but it’s very close to 400 pages. The cover art just blew me away … and I’m extremely fortunate to have been picked up by Samhain. Their horror editor, the great Don D’Auria, has been a guiding light. Like Chris Alexander, he’s simply a great guy.
Keep in mind, Jason, I’m not a young Turk, and I have absolutely no use for splatter punk or flash fiction or ‘fan fiction’ or whatever it’s called. At 61, I’m old school all the way and go for quiet chills rather than gore, sexual nonsense, violence and/or rape. Frankly, I don’t understand most young writers. I’ve picked up books that are recommended to me, and what I find is gratuitous violence, profanity, and themes that are distasteful and unpleasant. And I’m sick of hearing about the ‘zombie apocalypse.’ Just what is this strange fascination with zombies. I can’t figure it out.
JH: How did you come up with the title?
RL: When my first draft was completed, I pulled out a trusty yellow legal pad and wrote down a dozen evocative titles. I chose The Blue Classroom because, hey, that’s where the horrifying memory takes place. What memory, you ask? Buy the book and find out.
JH: What inspired you to write your first book?
RL: In the fall of 1984, I’d just begun my last year as a Graduate student–a hectic period, as you might imagine. Not only would I be graduating with a Masters, but I was ending a monumental chapter of my life and entering into uncharted territory. Two things were on my immediate agenda: (1) becoming a freelancer, and (2) writing a novel. But how? I examined the situation from every angle and just dove in, navigating the rocky freelancing waters like a drowning man. I’d no guide and did everything by myself. In the meanwhile, I also set about tackling a novel. Can you say, failure? Nothing gelled. Idea after idea imploded or just sat there, lifeless. Frustrated, I gave myself breathing room and concentrated all my efforts on freelancing.
In 1989, with my freelancing journey going smoothly, I went back to brainstorming about the novel. I was reading through my graduate project, a collection of short stories entitled Seven Dark Images, and found the perfect inspiration. Can’t go into too much detail about that … but The Blue Classroom did grow from a short story originally published in 1985.
JH: How long were you writing it?
RL: The going was very slow, at first. I started in August of 1989 and worked on it when I could–and that turned out to be not very often. Between 1989 and January of ‘91, I’d written only three chapters! With the new year (1991), I decided to test the publishing waters and sent out my three measly chapters to publishers. Most of them came back so fast, the packages were smoking! Rejections across the board. I also let Rick Hautala read what I had, and he didn’t like it. Man, talk about disillusioning! Did I have what it took to be a novelist, I wondered? Maybe not. I was having much more luck as a freelancer and instinctively grasped what editors wanted. But when it came to fiction, I just didn’t seem to have that spark. I put the novel–or my, ahem, three chapters–in a desk drawer and let it germinate. By that summer, I’d decided to give the project another try. I barreled forward and finished a first draft sometime in early 1992. I had all of 200 pages and thought, wow, this is great! But the journey was just beginning. 200 pages would translate to a very thin book! I needed to flesh out the story, really put myself into it, which I did. By the end of 1999, the manuscript was just kissing 500 pages in draft form.
Then came the hard part: editing. I am a perfectionist, and that’s not always a good thing. I slept, ate, and existed with my book, tweaking, rewriting, throwing out chapters then putting them back in again. Aaargh! A decade trundled by. In 2012–yes, fantastic as it sounds, 13 years later–I had a good thing and sent it off to Samhain Horror (I told you I was determined!). Six agonizing months passed, and the e-mail I’d been waiting for arrived from Don D’Auria, Samhain’s horror editor. The Blue Classroom was on their schedule for May 2014.
Now, I’m waiting. Have I succeeded? Or will readers hate what I’ve put together? We’ll see …
JH. Who is your favorite author/authors and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
RL: Naughty, naughty, I know, but I do very little reading, nowadays–outside of articles and an occasional short story. Oh, I’ve tried reading more, but I usually end up losing interest or just shaking my head at all the gratuitous gore and sex … and ZOMBIES! I love the masters, people like Steve King, Poe, [and] Lovecraft, of course. But if I had to single-out a writer as my favorite, it would be Robert McCammon. In my humble opinion, this artist has never gotten his due. They Thirst, which I read in the summer of 1981, is a remarkable book. And I also loved Mystery Walk, Usher’s Passing, Swan Song and especially A Boy’s Life.
JH: What books have most influenced your life most?
RL: There are two, both intertwined. One is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I read way back in 1967, when I was 14. The other is King’s Salem’s Lot. I just could not put that one down. Even today, I’ll find myself going back to ‘the Lot’ and rereading certain passages. The section where Ben Mears encounters the vampiric Marjorie Glick in an examining room is high-octane horror. King wrote it beautifully, with so much unbridled energy. That’s when he was a hungry artist, and I plugged into his raw-edged enthusiasm. I should also mention how much I love The Shining. That one book kept me up all night, the only time such a thing happened. I started at about 10 p.m. and was still reading at 4:30 a.m. The true definition of a ‘page turner.’ It’s his masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned.
JH: What are your current projects?
RL: I’m always working on something. My second novel for Samhain is in the pipeline, scheduled for publication next year. It’ll be finished and polished up by June 2014. There’s a third novel percolating, as well as a collection of short stories, two of which were finalists in Fangoria’s ‘Weird Words’ competition. Freelancing continues, and my goal is to win a Rondo Award. I’ve been nominated three times, so far. Hopefully, 4th is the charm! It’s a busy, rewarding life, as clichéd as that sounds. I find new challenges in every project.
The Blue Classroom e-book is currently available for pre-order at Amazon by clicking here.