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Author Spotlight: Michael Libling

Michael Libling

Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.

Today: Michael Libling is a World Fantasy Award finalist whose short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and many others. The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife is his second novel. His first, Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels, was published in 2019. Creator and former host of the long-running CJAD Trivia Show in Montreal, Michael is the father of three daughters and lives on Montreal’s West Island with his wife, Pat, and a big black dog named Piper. Among other things, he claims to be one of only a handful of North American authors who has never owned a cat. You can find out more about him at, where he has been known to blog on occasion.

Thanks so much, Michael, for joining me!

J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?

Michael Libling: I’ve told this story many times before, so if you’re among those familiar with it, please feel free to skip ahead.

In fifth grade, the class was asked to write a story about a fire. I went home, sat down at the kitchen table, and started writing. Mara, my older sister, passed by while I was working on it, took one glance, and was not at all happy with my direction. “Every kid in your class is going to write about a building on fire,” she said. “You need to burn something different.” Days later, the teacher read my forest-fire story to the class—the first time I’d ever had this happen!—and I loved the feeling. From this point on, I wanted to write, my goal being to burn something different every time. 

As for being good at it, that’s a never-ending internal debate. But nothing boosts the confidence quite like story sales to such magazines as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and the like, topped with appearances in Year’s Best anthologies. And then, when separate publishers make offers on the last two novels you’ve written, well, you start to think that maybe you do have something decent going on in the way of writing ability.

JSC: What was your first published novel? Tell me a little about it. 

ML: While I had a pretty good track record in short fiction leading up to it, my first novel, HOLLYWOOD NORTH: A NOVEL IN SIX REELS, was published in 2019 by ChiZine and subsequently Open Road Media. Spanning seven decades, HOLLYWOOD NORTH is a coming-of-age mystery with elements of fantasy and horror, along with a wealth of vintage movie, TV, and comic book trivia. Think THE WONDER YEARS meets STAND BY ME meets HUGO.

Hollywood North was inspired by my experience and that of my two older sisters growing up in Trenton, Ontario during the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, large chunks of the town’s history appeared to be kept secret, never mentioned by teachers or townspeople who might have been aware. Among the unspoken items were the deadly Grand Trunk train wreck of 1898, the disastrous British munitions plant explosion of 1918, the town’s silent movie studio which operated from 1917 to 1934, and a plane collision in 1937. Also never mentioned were the facts that James Cagney made a movie in Trenton in 1942 and that Henry Comstock, founder of Nevada’s famed Comstock Lode—the richest silver strike in American history—was born in the town. A more recent incident, also addressed in the novel, was the 2010 arrest of the commanding officer of the nearby Canadian air force base for serial rape and murder

How are the incidents linked? Why did so few locals recall them? Did the talkies destroy Hollywood North or was it a more sinister force? HOLLYWOOD NORTH answers these questions and more in what I hope readers agree is an entertaining and engrossing novel.

I should point out the subject matter here differs vastly from my latest novel, THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE. The most obvious connection to the two is my love of small towns as the setting for much of my fiction.

JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it. 

ML: I wouldn’t say I’ve taken a trip with the sole purpose of researching a story, but many trips I’ve taken have contributed to stories. The one that comes most readily to mind is my novelette, HOW I CAME TO WRITE FANTASY, that appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

As a freelance writer, I wrote travel pieces and advertising for The Netherlands Board of Tourism for sixteen years. The gig gave me the opportunity to explore a large part of the Dutch countryside, covering many towns and villages the average tourist never manages to get to. One of these places was the town of Oudewater, where you’ll find the Heksenwaag or Witch Weigh House. 

During the witch hunts and trials of the 16th Century, Oudewater gained fame as a haven of sorts for the accused. Better yet, I’ll let my characters describe it in this excerpt from HOW I CAME TO WRITE FANTASY…

            “The weight of witches was a hot topic back then. The thinking was, a witch needed to be sufficiently light in order to pilot a broomstick. Lift-off depended on it. And weigh-masters everywhere were making a killing. Witch after witch—heavyset, beanpole, you name it—was put to death, their body weight out of whack with body size. Six-footers weighed in at a couple of pounds, the zaftig zilch. But then Holy Roman Emperor Charles V himself steps in. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in witches, it’s the men who weigh them he’s got issues with. He’s seen his fair share of rigged weigh-ins. So what does he do? He begins a search for one honest weigh-master.”

            “Like Diogenes,” I said, pleased with my pedantry and, surprisingly, my coconut doughnut too, an unanticipated addition to my Dunkin’s top-five.           

            “Finally, Charles finds him in Oudewater in 1545. And next everyone knows…the old weigh-house on Leeuweringstraat is turned into the Heksenwaag, Europe’s only approved witch-weigh-house, accredited by the Emperor himself to issue certificates of witchly innocence. And I can tell you firsthand, man, they came from far and wide to get them. Not a single witch turned up on those scales. Not one in all the years.”

I saw the potential for a story on my first visit to Oudewater, though it took a few years before it finally flowed from brain to fingers to keyboard to page.

JSC: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be? 

ML: Follow my mother’s advice and become an optometrist like my cousin Jerry.

JSCDo you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones? 

ML: Yeah, I read them. And, yes, negative reviews are…um…uh…is there a nice way of putting it? Um…disappointing? Yeah, that’s it—disappointing. But as an editor friend once advised, if you’re going to believe the good reviews, you’ve got to believe the bad, too. In other words, it’s best not to believe any. Even so, some are absolutely maddening. Example? One of my earliest stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was reviewed online, and I use the word “reviewed” in its loosest sense. In the intro to the story, the magazine’s editor at the time, Gordon Van Gelder, had mentioned how I studied in university under the great Canadian author, Mordecai Richler. The reviewer then proceeded NOT to review my story. Rather, he said something to the effect of  “don’t bother reading Libling, read Richler instead.” Oh, man, that rankled! The only saving grace was that the story later appeared in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.

JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser? 

ML: Definitely a pantser. While I know many writers outline their stories, start to finish, the approach has never worked for me. I figure that if the story I’m writing takes a turn that surprises me, it’s sure to surprise the reader as well. And I do find myself surprised quite often. Besides, I don’t have the patience to sit down ahead of time and work out every detail. I suspect I’d be so bored with the story by the time I sat to write it, the thing would never be completed.

Since my stories tend to be character-driven, the plot inevitably emerges from the characters’ actions, inactions, and interactions, factors I rarely anticipate ahead of time. Well, at least sufficiently to write a detailed outline.

JSC: What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about the writing process? 

ML: To shut the heck up! When I first started writing fiction, I’d tell anyone who would listen about the story I had in mind. Problem was, when I sat down to write, I had talked about the story so much, I was bored sick with it and, thus, rarely finished anything. It wasn’t until a writing teacher in university—either Clark Blaise or Mordecai Richler—suggested that the best way to keep a story fresh is to keep one’s mouth shut about it until the story is done. 

I’ve stuck with this advice ever since. In fact, not even my wife knows what I’m working on until the first draft is complete to my satisfaction and I hand her the pages to read. 

The approach also motivates me to get the story done so I can finally hand it to readers and start blabbing incessantly about it. Sort of like I’ve been doing lately with my new novel, THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE. (See how subtly I managed to work that in.)

JSC: What book is currently on your bedside table?

ML: NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT by Derek B. Miller. Oddly, I’d never heard of the author until recently, when I picked up his latest, HOW TO FIND YOUR WAY IN THE DARK. It is, in fact, a prequel to the earlier NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT. While they tend to be categorized as mystery thrillers with an historical bent, the author goes far beyond expectations to expound on a variety of relevant issues, demonstrating a gutsiness that’s often expunged from today’s “inoffensive” fiction. While Miller stretches credulity at times, his characters are so vividly rendered, it’s easy to excuse any perceived excesses. Highly recommended.

JSC: What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it. 

ML: The question: How does THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE differ from other serial killer novels?

The answer: Unlike most books in the category, it is not about the hunt for the serial killer. Rather, it’s a character-driven story that puts the reader inside the head of a young man burdened from childhood by the weight of his dad’s unforgiveable crimes. For the son, it really comes down to a matter of survival—mentally and physically, of carrying on with a “normal” life in the face of all that he has learned or knows about his father. The fears and worries he lives with are manifest. Indeed, the back cover does a good job of encapsulating his rules for survival:

1. Change your last name. Be forgettable.

2. Take comfort. Serial killing is not hereditary. Not usually, anyhow.

3. Never contact your parents, whether on Death Row or elsewhere. You are messed up enough.

4. Choose a dull career. Run an ice cream parlor, for instance. 

5. Do not fall in love. Sooner or later, she will ask to meet your mom and dad.

6. Trust no one. Not even her.

7. Do not get married. It cannot end well.

8. Keep what you know to yourself. You were just a kid, after all.

9. Do not return to your boyhood home. No one has forgotten anything.

Yeah, it’s a crime thriller, but it’s also a horror novel and, as some have suggested, a twisted romance. One reviewer declared THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE to be “by turns hilarious and terrifying…easily one of the best small-town crime thrillers I’ve read in a very long time.”

JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre? 

ML: Quirky cross-genre, covering science fiction, fantasy, and horror, with a recent nod to crime/horror thrillers. I once had my work described as “a breezy spin on horrible things,” which pretty much fits the bill.

JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so? 

ML: I suspect every writer does to some extent. My first novel—HOLLYWOOD NORTH: A NOVEL IN SIX REELS—is a coming-of-age horror-fantasy set in my old hometown of Trenton, Ontario. The book sold well in the area and I received many letters from both current and former Trentonians—many of whom remembered me and my family. The questions I’d get most often related to certain characters and if they were based on So-And-So or So-And-So. Fact is, the only safe answer was to say that the two main characters, Gus and Jack, were an amalgam of who I was and who I wanted to be. Other than that, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.…”

JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea? 

ML: A little of both. Usually, an opening sentence or two will pop into my head, simultaneously with voice. And from that voice spring the characters. I embody the storyteller, whether the narration is first person or omniscient. Voice is everything. It’s the who and the how of storytelling, even when I have the vaguest of notions as to where the story might be heading. 

As soon as I’m happy with the first paragraph, I tend to fly from there, though admittedly “fly” is a relative term. I am a notoriously slow writer, ever-nitpicking myself along the way.

JSC: Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them? 

ML: I’m not sure it’s a matter of choice entirely. I write what I like to read, and this crosses a variety of genres, including literary and mainstream fiction. If an idea comes to me and I’m inspired to bring it to fruition, I do not agonize over genre. My goal is to write the best story possible. It might not be the wisest approach to building a writing career, but, at this point, I’m stuck with it. Likewise, I guess this also answers the question about “balancing them.”

JSC: How does the world end?

ML: Read the news on any given day. We’re watching it unfold in real time. Human nature ultimately destroys all. And with this cheery thought in mind, I thank you for this interview.

The Serial Killer's Son - Michael Libling

And now for Michael’s latest book: The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife:

There wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t know what Bobby Blessing’s father had done, and would have kept on doing if he’d had the chance. He had murdered 27 innocent people. But Bobby knew the number was higher. Much higher. Still, even Bobby didn’t know the whole story.

In The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife, author Michael Libling plunges readers inside the decidedly cursed life of a young man struggling to navigate a reality few people will ever ponder: how to survive having a serial killer for a father in a small town where nothing is forgotten.

When readers meet Bobby, he has a new last name and a relatively benign existence as the owner of an ice cream parlor in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is working hard to leave his family’s horrific past behind. But then, one harsh winter night, the astonishing Cori Widdoes shows up with a hankering for a sundae, and Bobby abruptly forgets the one key to his survival: Nothing is what it seems. Before too long, he finds himself asking, how do you tell the woman you love your dad is a serial killer?

With surprising doses of humor that cut through the tension and horror, The Serial Killer’s Son Takes A Wife delves into areas few, if any, so-called ‘serial killer’ novels have explored before. And through it all, the specter of Bobby’s father looms large, forcing Bobby to face unspeakable answers to questions that have haunted him for a lifetime.

Publisher | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Northfire Books | Indigo


Interveiw with Myself by Bobby Dickens

(Mrs. Cole’s English class, Room 6)

Bobby: What is it like to be the son of a serial killer? 
Myself: I don’t know.
Bobby: Do people treat you diffrent?
Myself: If they find out.
Bobby: How do they find out? 
Myself: I tell them some times. 
Bobby: Why?
Myself: I don’t know.
Bobby: What happens then?
Myself: Some think its a joke. Some go away. Some don’t. 
Bobby: What is the best part about being the son of a serial killer
Myself: Scaring people I don’t like.
Bobby: What is the worst part?
Myself: Missing my father.
Bobby: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Myself: I know what I don’t want to be.

Teacher’s Comments: I find this disturbing. Threatening classmates is unacceptable. See me after class! Your spelling also needs improvement.

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