Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of Who Holds the Devil! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the book’s premise, and what (or who) was its inspiration?
Michael Dittman: On Halloween’s Eve 2018, I watched as the city cut down a giant oak across the street from my house. When I moved to this small city outside of Pittsburgh, I had been told that this tree marked the grave of Sam Mohawk. Mohawk was a man who, suffering from hallucinations and delirium, killed a mother and her five children in 1843. When he was apprehended, he was standing in a farmhouse playing a fiddle. He was quickly convicted and hanged; no cemetery would take his body, so he was buried in a deserted spot that eventually became my neighborhood.
As I watched that tree fall, I thought, “Huh, that seems like a terrible idea at the worst possible time of the year,” and scratched the scene into my idea notebook.
The next winter, I was very ill. Major surgery and the following treatment had left me in bed for eight weeks. During those painful long days and nights, wracked with nausea and staring at the ceiling, I began to flesh out a story about what would happen in a world where that fallen tree had been imprisoning the evil that had possessed Mohawk.
A year later, I had a rough draft of a novel that revolved around a tragic accident that toppled an ancient oak destroying the stone wall in front of the home of a man named Aaron Moody. All Moody wants is for the city to fix the damage. Instead, he finds, beneath his small town wracked by unemployment and opioids, an underground world of spells, secrets, and a newly released and murderous demon who last walked the Earth in human form in the years following the Civil War. As Moody researches Sam Mohawk, the demon’s last host, he finds Evanora La Costa, a queer witch who’s attempting to visit some payback upon the demon; a secret municipal department in the basement of city hall that insists on being bribed with meat; and Mr. B, a neighborhood cat that may or may not be providing advice to Moody on mourning the aftermath of his wrecked marriage, facing a job gone south, and fighting an entity hell-bent on taking Moody, Evanora, and few other thousand souls straight to hell.
BD: What can you tell us about the creative process of bringing this story to life?
MT: A lot of my writing is done in my head before I ever start putting down words. I’m an outside kind of guy and when I’m hiking or cycling or, especially, swimming, I like to play with the storyline in my head. While I don’t use an outline, I sketch out a start, ending, and plot points to guide me through the story. I write a minimum of 500 words every day. I like to get a whole draft done and then start to slowly work through it several times before I start to send it out for reader feedback.
This novel also lead me down a lot of research rabbit holes: 19th-century magicians and spiritualists, the glass industry in Western Pennsylvania, drives around the region to find the perfect small town for the Evanora’s home and occult store (ending up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania), the 62nd Volunteer Infantry in the American Civil War, some very cautious scoutings of the homeless encampment in the woods outside of my city, and a lot of trips to the Carnegie Library in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I’m a former journalist and a current academician, as well as a fiction writer, so I found this digging to be pure joy.
One thing I was really happy about was my reimagining the character of Sam Mohawk. The historical Mohawk was a member of the Seneca Nation and a lot of the media coverage at the time of the murder focuses on the “savage”. My Mohawk is an Anglo swindler who adopts a “native-sounding” name to tap into the craze for “Native American Wisdom” (patent medicines and the like) during his time.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that your book will connect with and impact readers?
MT: I spend a lot of time thinking about, reviewing, and writing a lot of horror. One thing I figured out pretty quickly was that our interior lives and personal shortcomings are the scariest demons for most of us to face. There are monsters and gruesome deaths in Who Holds The Devil, but at its core, it’s a story about redemption, fear, and anxiety.
The fact that I was re-reading The Inferno at the same time that I was creating Aaron Moody’s character is probably not a coincidence. Moody is at a terrible emotional point in his life. His job and marriage have bottomed out, he no longer recognizes the city he lives in, and he has lost his way. Evanora LaCosta made a terrible mistake as a young woman and has been running from it for a decade until the reemergence of Mohawk forces her to face it. Alek, the demon’s current host, has been destroyed physically and psychologically; he’s losing the last scraps of humanity that he’s trying so hard to hold on to.
The character’s struggles to move beyond the places where they have found themselves and come back to being the people who they were and want to be again are something that most of us can relate to.
Some of the real horror in the book is seeing the character’s journey to becoming whole again. Readers will come away from the book, not only with a sense of unease from the uncanny premise of the book but also with a sense of the struggle that we go through that makes us painfully human.
BD: What makes Manta Press the perfect home for this story?
MT: I’m currently unagented, which is a bit of a pain when it comes to sending out work. Who Holds the Devil was rejected by six different presses (including one of the nastiest, most muddled rejections I’ve received since I started sending out work at 18). Some presses clearly didn’t read past the first paragraph of the submission before rejecting it and others didn’t understand the project. The process can be discouraging, but I have often been referred to as “bull-headed.”
With prior books, I worked with larger presses. Then, I started talking to my self-publishing friends. They told me that they were earning royalties of 60% and 70%. I couldn’t believe that I was making 12% and getting almost nothing – a non-existent promo budget, a revolving cast of editors, and a tiny advance. I wasn’t ready to move to self-publishing; it seems like a huge amount of work and I am very jealous of my writing time, but this book was special to me and I wanted to work with someone who would return my emails and who was genuinely passionate about the book.
Manta Press was lucky number seven. Tim McWhorter at Manta has been amazing to work with. Tim is a wonderful writer himself. He understands horror, storytelling, and publishing. I get lots of freedom with Manta and good advice from Tim. Manta does all the heavy lifting with the technical publication side and offers a much more equitable royalty rate.
It’s been the best experience I’ve had with a publishing house in almost two decades of writing.
BD: Do you foresee expanding the story into subsequent books (or into other entertainment mediums if given the opportunity)?
MT: The plan at this point is a loosely related trilogy (with a related middle-grade novel) – a shared universe with reoccurring characters and locations but with different storylines. I tend to think in a cinematic way when I write, “seeing” the scene’s images in a sort of mental storyboard as I work to get them down. Who Holds The Devil has that sort of cinematic quality that would make it easy to adapt to a script – something that I would much like to see.
A child of the 1980s, I’m also a huge comic nerd and more than a little bit of a Mike Mignola fanboy. I wrote and published a graphic novel with the artist Jon Armstrong a while back and really enjoyed it – I think that a series set in the Who Holds The Devil world would be a blast to write.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
MT: I have a middle-grade book, Elizabeth, that I’m currently shopping; it’s set in the Who Holds the Devil universe, but twenty years earlier. The protagonist, Elizabeth, shows up at a family’s home in a small Western Pennsylvania town claiming to be a long-lost sister to the family’s child, Paige. While that mystery is being unwound, Elizabeth and Paige team up to find out what’s making the kids in their town sick. Elizabeth is Coraline meets Hellboy. There are demons, a pack of strangely human dogs, and a sentient nutria. Elizabeth was a blast to write, and I hope that it finds a home soon.
I’m also currently wrapping up the first draft of the second installment of the Who Holds The Devil trilogy. Set ten years after Who Holds the Devil, and tentatively titled Waterbound, it follows the story of an Appalachian Granny Witch entwined with the story of her nephew who leaves New York City because of the COVID pandemic and returns to his hometown to deal with the legacy of the evil that Esther created in her blind craving for revenge. Aaron, Evanora, and Mr. B all make appearances in the book and sharp-eyed readers will find numerous callbacks.
I’m deeply rooted in Northern Appalachia and its culture, stories, and people. (I also serve as an editor for the Applachian Lit journal.) It’s a region that’s been ignored or stereotyped in horror literature, and I’m proud to be doing my small part in reclaiming it.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Who Holds the Devil and your other work?
MT: The book is available through pretty much all outlets online and on-ground; however, a good place to start is mantapress.com. I’m always booking readings and workshops (live and virtual) and I love to talk to readers about my book or writing and reading in general. My website is michaelditman.com and my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook handle is @dittman. I’m @dittman07 on Snapchat.