Leatherstone by David P. Pabian is a haunting tale about failed expectations and dreams turned to nightmares. After reading it, I felt I had to know more about the author and why he chose to re-write a tale of such sadness. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Hello Mr. Pabian, thank you for sitting down with the APOV and talking about Leatherstone.
Pabian: Definitely my pleasure.
APOV: I reviewed your book recently, so my readers may have an idea of what your book is about, but could you give us a brief summary of Leatherstone?
Pabian: It’s about a 12-year-old kid, something of a loner, a would-be geek, but without drive or focus, becoming obsessed with the idea of creating life, or at least re-animating it. It takes place in 1960, so the Universal “Frankenstein” movies are still something of a novelty on TV, and young John, ironically nicknamed Champ, somehow thinks that shouldn’t be too difficult. When he finds what he takes to be the body of a dead man in the woods, he sets about making his dream into reality. What he doesn’t know is that the man he’s found is an escaped serial killer who, once revived and having suffered hypothermic brain damage, has no idea who he actually is. So the murderous criminal the cops are hunting isn’t now exactly the man they’re looking for. It’s about upending Champ’s world and forcing him to consider the consequences of actions in a confusing universe where nothing can be safely relied on and there’s no pre-ordained plan or design.
APOV: Ah, I’m glad you brought up religion right up front. Though religion is not paramount to the story, there’s an undercurrent of conflict between Champ’s upbringing and the wider world where a belief in the pre-ordained plan or design exists (i.e. God, Christianity, etc). I recently read Atheist Voices of Minnesota that contained a few essays from folks who grew up in a non-religious (and even anti-religious) home. Coming from a deeply religious family, it was a shocker for me. And reading Champ’s point of view was very refreshing. What made you decide to give Champ a non-theist upbringing?
Pabian: Because that was mine. I’ll qualify that a bit. My father had a bad experience with the Catholic church when he was about 20 (rules to assure that his just-deceased mother would go to heaven) that amounted to an inspired Revelation to get the hell out. But my mother had a nominally British Anglican upbringing that led her to think I should at least go to Sunday School – an easy thing to do, as the neighbor boys went and I could bum a ride. Since I’d been exposed to fairy tales before religion, and Sunday School was basically coloring books and sentimentally illustrated bible stories, I saw them only as fairy tales and couldn’t believe the “teacher” expected us to believe the stuff. At one point I actually said, “You mean this really happened?” The poor guy just looked confused and said, “Of course.” My buddy and I would always ask to go to the bathroom together, which really meant going down to the untended coffee cart and knocking back ten or so sugar lumps each and pocketing as many. The Sunday School idea didn’t last too long and my mom really couldn’t care less. I once asked her if people went to heaven when they died and she said, “I never believed that – everything dies, life just ends, no one goes anywhere.” Written, it sounds depressing or downright cruel, but she said it simply and matter-of-factly. An interesting point about that to me is that I’m sure it heightened my empathy for people and even animals, as I couldn’t brush off cruelty to others or physical deformities with, “Well, it might be hard for them now, but soon they’ll be whole and happy for eternity.” I grasped pretty early on that this is it.
APOV: I agree that the belief in no God does seem to increase one’s empathy for your fellow earthlings (whatever species they may be). As you said, there’s no “They’re in a better place now” sort of thinking. Back to Frankenstein, I re-read most of Shelley’s original story and was taken away by the overall theme of friendship and acceptance. I hadn’t remember that, and once I started re-reading, a lot of the elements in Leatherstone became more haunting. What elements from the original did you hope to emulate?
Pabian: I first read Frankenstein when I was 12, a really impressionable age on a lot of fronts, and had much the same reaction as you did. My first exposure to the book was Shelley’s 1831 revision, where some plot points were changed from her 1818 first edition to reflect a more conservative stance (e.g., Victor’s fiancé Elizabeth is no longer his first cousin but an unrelated orphan) and Shelley’s writing had become considerably more polished. Her descriptions of scenes of nature and human relationships and foibles are more romantic and impressionistic, and I remember being really struck by that and was totally enthralled by her world of storm-tossed Europe and all those majestic cloud-enshrouded mountains. I started collecting editions of the book and in my mid-teens came across one from 1932 with great illustrations by Nino Carbe, who later became a background artist for Walter Lanz. I was confused but really excited by the book’s being so different in many points from all those I’d read before, which had all been the 1831 version. A couple of years later (pre-Google obviously, and the info wasn’t even in my encyclopedia) I finally learned about Shelley’s revision and realized that the Carbe edition I had was her original. The later version is still the one more frequently published, but my collection is now around 50-50 of the two versions.
But there was excitement in the mystery of why a book I knew so well was suddenly so different and with no explanation. That actual physical quality of the wonder of discovery and doubt was one of the reasons I read so many books as a child that I knew were beyond me. I enjoyed the sense of, “what does this mean? Someday I’ll get it,” and just read on in half-comprehension. Leatherstone is pretty direct and I hope not confusing, but I wanted to infuse it with a sense of unfolding discovery.
I’m pleased that you found elements in Leatherstone haunting, as that was very much my reaction to Frankenstein and I wanted to get some of that into my work, by setting up scenes that I hoped would stick with readers by being slightly odd in viewpoint, or based on a thought not easily associated with a particular situation. Although it isn’t a fantasy I tried for a dreamlike-feel by remembering my 12-year-old self trying to struggle through concepts I didn’t easily grasp, often making up my story which was way off from the reality, etc. You mention the “overall theme of friendship and acceptance” in Shelley’s work, and I translated some of that into Champ’s sexual confusion. It’s clear that Mary Shelley put a lot of her and her husband’s friendship with Byron into the character of Henry Clerval. I remember being struck by the serious 19th century concept of ”manly love” between Victor and Henry because in my early teens I developed a serious fascination with my girlfriend’s older brother – talk about conflict – and such dilemmas, simultaneously exciting and disturbing, are much more the stuff of childhood than many of us want to think about. But why write unless you have a viewpoint, and one of mine is looking at accepted culture through a slightly askew lens.
There are parallels to Shelley’s book throughout, in names and character relationships, although they’re mixed with allusions to the 1931 James Whale film, as that was Champ’s inspiration. I also used the device of the monster narrating to Victor his side of things, which in Shelley’s novel goes for several chapters but is one quick one in mine. It’s almost impossible nowadays to write in multiple 1st person, a 19th century convention, without being extremely artificial, and although I wanted an off-putting sense of dream-reality, I definitely didn’t want it to be artificial. I hope that the haunting aspect you found in my work reflects some success on my part that fairly ordinary scenes – watching TV, sitting in a restaurant, hunting – have a dark dreamlike sense about them.
Simply put, Shelley’s tale is really absolutely wacko, but through her style she gets us to believe it on a very visceral level. That’s what I attempted to do in a simpler, admittedly more humble way.
APOV: Wow. That is very ambitious of you. And though I am not a Frankenstein aficionado, I was able to see the parallel you drew between Shelley’s work and the movie, and I think you did an exceptional job. I’ll tell you the two scenes I found very haunting and very cinematic: When Leatherstone (the character in your book) kills their uncle in the lights of the vehicle and when Champ is shot (and Leatherstone’s subsequent death). In the first, I felt the reader had a bird’s-eye view of the scene, and we all knew what was coming even though both Champ and his sister couldn’t. That’s a few powerful moment in the book and really shatters the illusion that Champ had of “Frank”. In the second, we view the Leatherstone’s death scene from Champ’s eyes; we see Leatherstone’s sacrifice and just how sad his life had been.
There are other similar scenes that I found cinematic. As you write, are you trying to describe a play that is running through your head or does the “scene” emerge through successive drafts?
Pabian: Very much through successive drafts. I’ve always had a very visual sense of storytelling – I like to set the scene as effectively as possible, and even attempt to make the text read at an approximate pace of the action. I’m certainly not always successful in that, but I enjoy trying. The story is pretty simple, and I was trying for that dreamlike quality I mentioned, and laying out the basic story was very much like writing down a play, just the facts, then going back to fill it in. My prose has always somewhat cinematic, as films were a major influence on me as early as I can remember and I’ve done a lot of scripts (mostly un-credited rewrites and assignments, some studio projects that never got out of the pipeline but paid the bills, etc.), and have often been told how “visual” they are. I come from the generation that was taught to make scripts visual, but now that’s unfashionable and also makes it easier to teach in the script-writing mills. However in scripts, as in Leatherstone, I tend at first to overwrite the descriptions and visuals, throwing it all in, as dramatic as I can make it, consciously seeing the angles and lighting, as you mentioned in the lights of the vehicle. My prose gets all purple and overwrought, then I go back again and again and hone it down, getting it as tight as possible (something that’s absolutely necessary in a film script where you need to set an effective scene but also get on quickly with the dialogue). Then I hope that what I have left is very visual but hasn’t bogged down the text.
APOV: I think you succeeded in that. Let’s get back to your protagonist: We meet Jake, Champ, during an intense time during his life. His mother has just died, and he is struggling with pre-pubescence geekdom. In addition, his father has emotionally abandoned his children to a somewhat abusive uncle and he has an older, mentally disabled sister he must care for. Wow. Though some might call that overkill, Champ’s world is familiar and believable. Who inspired Champ?
Pabian: Pretty much me, I guess. I was a horror movie geek, unfortunately not a brilliant practical geek, and was very attuned to the manipulative style of the Universal 1930s series. I delighted in the artful use of shot setups and close-ups, especially when a closeup had its own lighting, completely different from the master shot. Many people seem outraged by such “mistakes,” but I always reveled in them, because the director and/or director of photography put the effect of the shot above all else. So I had my own obsessions and tried to transfer a sense of them to Champ. Where he lives, on the wrong side of the new tract, reflects a family I knew as a kid. Just down the street from our new suburbia were the last of the area’s rural fields and the small farmhouse where a family lived. I went to elementary school with the daughter, who didn’t quite fit into our neat little world since she lived outside the modern development. She had a Down’s syndrome brother, so I switched the genders and that’s where loner Champ’s living situation and mentally disabled sister came from. I’m glad you found it believable, as it’s pretty much a literal scene of my childhood.
Another aspect of the early 1960s that people might be amazed at, especially in this post-Penn State age, is the fact that in many schools of the era with pools the boys swam naked. As far as I know it was always a double standard, boys naked and girls in suits, but never together – definitely a different world. I confess to using such a scene specifically to throw the reader into an obviously different time, a time thought of by many as being extremely uptight, but it was uptight in different ways from now, and considerably less puritan. Champ manages to get through the swimming lesson but has more trouble with Leatherstone’s rational approach to clothing.
APOV: Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? Fiction often reflects reality and vice versa. You mentioned that you’ve been a fan of Shelley’s work since puberty and a movie geek, do you foresee a cinematic adaptation of Leatherstone? I think it would be an awesome movie. Something akin to “To Kill A Mockingbird”, but for horror-geeks.
Pabian: I love the “To Kill a Mockingbird” analogy, and only wish I could write like that! I’d also like to take that comment back to the director who optioned Leatherstone. He liked the novel a lot, even summoned tears to his eyes at our first meeting, but then tried to turn it into something else entirely. This is an old Hollywood story, and I worked on that side of fence for years as a story executive so understand it, but his changes were all about a franchise and maybe a stage musical version and lots of other things that it isn’t. There was basically no Champ left. Ultimately it didn’t work out, but I’m rewriting it now as I see it. Since I’m a Hollywood Hack I’ll make it as commercial as I can, of course, but it will bear at least some resemblance to the book.
APOV: The very last scene in the book is a letter written by an adult Champ to an imaginary Frank. The very last sentence made me catch my breath. I don’t want to give anything away, but the very last bit of the book elicited a range of emotions from me; wonder, horror, sadness, triumph, and confusion. Also this question: does the story continue?
Pabian: You just made my day! Thank you. The book’s very last line is actually a nod to the 1931 film “Frankenstein,” and Champ is recounting a dream, so I left it ambiguous as to whether he had actually accomplished something like what he said, or if it was only his younger dreamed self reverting for a moment to the obsessions of his childhood, which for many take more adult forms but don’t really change. I was going for a Peter Pan effect there, because the very end of Barrie’s play and his novelization of it catches one up by its shocking sadness. And although it’s not really a sad ending in Leatherstone, Champ, like Wendy, is really grown up now and someone else. He’s basically telling Leatherstone goodbye. At this point for me that’s the end.
APOV: And it is a very moving ending, very appropriate for your story. Are you working on anything else that our readers may be interested to hear about?
Pabian: I’ve finished and am shopping around a novel about a western outlaw based on his actual life not the myths that have been invented in the last 100+ years. That’s the point – his life, even while he lived, was about myths and they brought him down. And I’m working on another about a 14th century count who was thought to be a werewolf.
APOV: Werewolf! Should be interesting. Good luck with your current works, and I look forward to reading them. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Pabian, it was a pleasure having you.
Pabian: My pleasure entirely. Thanks for putting up with my somewhat rambling responses!
LEATHERSTONE is available from Amazon.com.
© 2012 N.E. White / David Patrick Pabian