Fantasy & Fantastic Stories …
Daniel Grotta has written thousands of articles, reviews and columns during his career. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the London Sunday Times Magazine, Saturday Review, PC Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine, just to name a few. He’s been a war correspondent, investigative reporter, editor and member of the National Book Critics Circle, and he has authored several books including the first biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Lord of the Rings. His latest book, Seven From Haven, may best be described as “seven gentle ghost stories with O’Henry-like sensibility, charm and humor.” His stories are “fantastical,” not frightening, and as you get lost in its pages, you’ll likely relate to the inspirations of northeastern Pennsylvania woven into its plotlines. Grotta lives in a former Oddfellows Hall in the Poconos with his wife, Sally. Meet Daniel Grotta …
The setting in one of the stories in your book sounds very familiar. Tell us about it.
Yes, the setting for the first story in the book, Dead and Buried, is our house. We’ve lived there for 16 years.
We heard you discovered an interesting connection from the past between you and your home.
Sally’s aunt, who is 105 now, is a (retired) psychiatrist. She lives in Center City Philadelphia. Back in 1955, she had a house at Lake in the Clouds on Lake Wallenpaupack. She had to see a patient in Philadelphia and she got caught in the flood coming back. She had to roll down her windows and take off her dress and hold it over her head and walk to a building. She spent the night in this building, and she woke up in the morning and looked out back, and there were bodies floating all around from a cemetery. All the stones had been washed away. So she got in touch with the State Police and they contacted her son, who was a Navy Corpsman at the time, and they helicoptered in serum to inoculate the town. My wife, Sally, was raised on this story and, unbeknownst to us, it was our building that she had spent the evening in and it was the Village of Newfoundland that she had inoculated. That’s coincidence.
In Dead and Buried, David and Cindy Wilson were looking at real estate and stumbled upon a wonderful old Oddfellows Hall next to an abandoned cemetery in Haven, quite by accident. Is this story based on how you and Sally found your home?
Yes, we had been scheduled to see properties. We saw three of them and we were rather discouraged. But Sally said, “Don’t get discouraged” because it took her parents two years to find the house they wanted when they left Philadelphia for Pottstown. So we figured it could take a while. We decided to turn along the lake because it was a nice day, and we went through Newfoundland. There in the distance we saw this big white elephant of a building, and yes, there were bullet holes in the “for sale” sign. (Laughs). We called (the realtor) and spent the night and came back, and the rest was negotiation.
It’s wonderful to be able to draw from such personal experiences when you write.
You write about what you know. (At first) we didn’t know if the Cemetery Association was still active — they’re in and out and we didn’t know if anyone was caring for it. So many properties have been taken over by the banks …. so, a story always begins with “what if?” and you project or imagine. And that’s what I did. “What would happen if we had a cemetery there and we were about to lose it to the bank? Well, it’s in the cemetery’s best interest to take care of itself …” There’s a saying throughout the book that “Haven takes care of its own.” Eventually, we’ll find a solution.
How do you describe the genre of Seven From Haven?
They are ghost stories only in the most fleeting sense of the word. They’re more fantastical. Things that happen aren’t supernatural so much as an extension of the natural into the elevated natural. I hate horror films, for example. I hear the word “zombie” or “vampire” and that’s it. I’m out. I don’t read it. I don’t look at it because to me these are useless fantasies. They share no purpose. It’s a genre that’s invented and for some reason they’ve become popular. Fantasy, yes.
And you’ve been a longtime fan of fantasy.
Yes, that’s another thing I’m involved in. I was the first biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, so I still dine out on that at science fiction fantasy conferences and conventions. I’m invited as a speaker or panelist because of my expertise.
Let’s talk about your career as a freelance writer.
It takes discipline, luck and a little craziness. A lot of it is luck — the right time, the right place, knowing the right editors, getting the right assignments, delivering the right manuscripts and either specializing or becoming a general writer. I’ve done both. I’ve been a book editor, a book critic, music critic, investigative reporter, feature writer.
When we got our first computer in the 1980s, we started a company called Syndicated Writers Group. We had 52 writers under contract and we were getting ever-ready articles on medicine, health, travel, history, gardening that we could sell to newspapers and magazines and deliver electronically. We invested, and we didn’t have that much money, so we hired a programmer to do the programs we designed. We had to buy the equipment and assemble it and get our networks going. Basically we learned about computers simply through necessity. When that went down the tubes financially — we were about 10 years too early — it was before the Internet and CDs at the time cost about $10 each instead of 10 cents each. We were intending to deliver electronically, but most newsrooms weren’t equipped with MCI or CompuServe, the precursors to the web. So we ran out of money and I was looking at the specter of flipping hamburgers, which didn’t really appeal to me, and I discovered I had a skill — I’m a writer and I know technology because I had to learn it. At the time, computer journalism was in its infancy and most writers were engineers or programmers and they knew the subject but they didn’t know how to write. I could take a technical subject and explain it. Plus, with my background as a book critic and music critic, I had the language and methodology of being able to critique and analyze and explain what things are and make value judgments. Criticism, whatever the medium, whether it’s literary criticism, music, technology, books, uses the same intellectual tools. So I made a lateral shift. The next 20 years or so, almost all of my writing was in the high tech field.
With such versatility in your portfolio, what do you enjoy most?
What I’m doing right now — getting into, and back to, fiction. Basically I wrote these stories (Seven From Haven) a number of years ago when we first moved here. I had just put them aside, and, well, reality has a way of interjecting its way into your life.
— julie imel
Seven From Haven is available at www.PixelHallPress.com and Amazon.com, in print and electronic versions.