Author’s Spotlight: Ambrose Stolliker Interview

Ambrose Stolliker, author of The Strange Nighttime Journey of Father Stephen Marlowe and others

1. First, introduce yourself a bit. What is your name (or pen name) and where are you from?

My name is Ambrose Stolliker. I grew up in the New York Metro area but have lived in the Seattle area for the last twenty-three years.

2. Next, tell us a bit about your most recent work. Is this your first published book? What is it about and what genre would you classify it as?

The Strange Nighttime Journey of Father Stephen Marlowe is a supernatural horror novel and was released by indie publishing house Muddy Paw Press in late May 2022. Here’s the back of the book summary:

In the year since his brother, Chris, committed suicide, Father Stephen Marlowe has not been able to pick up the pieces. He is racked with guilt over what he believes was his part in Chris’ death and his once-meteoric rise through the Catholic Church in New York City has come to an ignominious end. Haunted by disturbing dreams of his brother suffering in a hellish underworld, Marlowe is at the breaking point. At the behest of his superiors, he goes to St. Michael the Archangel Church in the Bronx to seek counsel from a mysterious priest who specializes in helping spiritually troubled clergy. There, as he reluctantly attempts to make confession and unburden his soul, the church is rocked by a powerful earthquake. The confessional disintegrates, the floor crumbles away beneath him, and Marlowe is plunged into a world both wondrous and terrifying where he must fight to save his brother’s immortal soul.

3. Tell us a bit about your main character; what are they like, how did they come about, and what are some of their strengths and weaknesses?

Father Stephen Marlowe is a Roman Catholic priest who serves as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Queens, N.Y. When we first meet Father Marlowe, he is in a profound state of spiritual crisis and is doubting his ability to continue on in his vocation as a priest. Deep down, Marlowe is a good and decent man, but he has his failings, one of which is an imperfect understanding of what it means to love unconditionally.

In earlier iterations of the story, Marlowe was portrayed as a much younger man, a priest fresh out of seminary who sees the world in very black and white terms and with a confidence he probably has not earned. As I developed the story through subsequent drafts, I felt like he needed to be an older, perhaps middle-aged man who has been beaten down by the harshness of the outside world and weighed down by the guilt and shame associated with what he sees as his own failings. I felt that in order for him to be a more compelling character readers would empathize with, he needed to be in a dark place when the story opens so he can evolve into a different and, hopefully, wiser and more hopeful person by the time his journey ends.

4. What was your hardest scene to write in this (or any) book?

That’s a tough question. There are a lot of scenes in the book that contribute to Father Marlowe’s character arc, but I’d say my favorite one is the opening scene. The story begins with Marlowe arriving on a pediatric cancer ward in New York City so he can administer Last Rites to a young girl dying of cancer. I’ve heard some readers describe the scene as “an emotional gut punch” that sets the stage for the central conflict of the story, which is Marlowe’s profound crisis of faith. By the time the scene ends, it is very clear that Marlowe no longer believes in God and the only course of action he can see is to leave the priesthood for good.

The scene was difficult to write, not only because of the emotional impact of trying to portray the death of an innocent child, but because there’s a fine line between drama and melodrama. I probably put the scene through at least three drafts before I was satisfied with it, though, like most writers, I’m NEVER completely satisfied with anything I write.

5. Did you go the traditional route when publishing your book or did you choose to self-publish?

I went the traditional route. The Strange Nighttime Journey of Father Stephen Marlowe was submitted to around thirty or forty literary agents, and didn’t get a single sniff. Not one. After a while, I began to suspect it MIGHT be because, as a novel, it IS on the short side at only 47,000 words. That’s just a guess though. It’s such a subjective business as all writers know, so perhaps the premise just didn’t resonate with the agents I targeted.

In any case, I eventually gave up on trying to secure an agent and instead began submitting it to independent and small horror presses. At first, it was tough going, but, eventually, I had a press ask for the full manuscript. My hopes were dashed when, several weeks later, they told me they enjoyed it but they wouldn’t take it on. I remained undeterred, however, and continued to submit it.

Then, one day last summer, Tyler Hauth, founder of Muddy Paw Press, called me on the phone and told me he had read half of the novel and he wanted to publish it. I was really caught off guard because no publisher or editor had ever taken the time to actually pick up the phone and call me about anything I’d written. We had a great conversation and, as we talked about the story, it was very clear Tyler understood what I was trying to say. He was a great editor and his feedback really helped make the story better, especially in terms of pacing. He’s been a great partner and I highly encourage all horror writers who don’t have traditional agent representation to give small presses a chance. These indie houses are much more likely to take on stories that don’t fit into the mainstream of what sells and what doesn’t sell. So, a short novel like Father Marlowe probably had a better chance with the indie presses than the traditional big publishers.

6. What would you say is the most difficult part of your writing journey and what advice would you give to other writers?

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been writing and trying to get published for a while, but the hardest part is dealing with the rejection.

For my part, I feel like my career as a newspaper reporter and magazine journalist trained me for the constant rejection from editors, agents and publishers. To be honest, it never really phased me enough to make me think about giving up on a career as a fiction writer. That said, I did, of course, have moments of doubt, especially in the years before I landed my first publishing credit (a short horror story entitled Ghosts of Annapurna, which was published in Ghostlight Magazine around 2010.) They say getting that first writing credit is the toughest nut to crack, and it is, but I just always kind of believed my stories were pretty good and there was an audience out there for them somewhere, I just had to find it.

So, I guess if I have one piece of advice to writers, it would be, if you really love to write, don’t ever give up. The only way you can fail is if you stop writing. And, of course, practice your craft as often as possible by writing on a regular basis and by reading both within and outside of your chosen genre.

7. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

As of today, I’ve published more than a dozen short horror stories, two horror novellas and one horror novel. None of them are connected. That said, the ending of The Strange Nighttime Journey of Father Stephen Marlowe makes it clear that his story is just beginning, and there MAY be more stories to come. I haven’t thought of a new story for Stephen yet, but if there’s one out there for him, I’ll find it and write it.

8. What are some of your favourite authors and books and what inspired you to become a writer in the first place?

I read a lot of different types of fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction side, I tend to read a lot of horror, obviously. I’m a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, William Peter Blatty, Susan Hill, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, Thomas Ligotti, and Stephen King. On the more contemporary front, I’ve very much enjoyed the books of Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Trembley, Brian Keene, John Langan, and V Castro.

I am also a big fan of fantasy. My favorite all-time book is The Crystal Cave by Lady Mary Stewart, who died a few years ago. That book, more than any other, inspired me to become a fiction writer. Her vivid use of language and innovative re-telling of the Arthurian legend through Merlin’s eyes was captivating. Marion Zimmer Bradley, George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien are also favorites of mine.

I also LOVE good historical fiction – the work of John Jakes (the North & South trilogy), Sharon Kay Penman (Norman, Welsh and Scottish history), Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) are among the best historical fiction writers out there.

On the non-fiction front, I read a great deal about American history, especially the Civil War and WWII. Bruce Catton and William Shirer come to mind. I also love the history of baseball, especially the so-called “golden age” of baseball of the 1920s-60s, so Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer), Doris Kearns Goodwin (Wait Till Next Year) and David Halbestrom, who we just lost as well (Summer of ’49 and October 1964 are two of his best) also sit on my shelf. The history of Negro League baseball has also become a passion of mine, and I have excellent biographies of Satchel Page, Josh Gibson and many other African-American greats who never got to play in the big leagues that I’ve voraciously consumed over the years.

9. What would you say has been the best way to market your books?

This is the toughest aspect of getting published. Once your book is out there, it’s incredibly difficult to rise above all the noise and get your book noticed. I’m a digital marketer in my day job, so I know how challenging it can be to make your voice heard.

Most of the success I’ve seen has been in engaging directly with book bloggers and reviewers on social media and finding podcasts that will give indie authors an opportunity to come on their shows and talk about their books. It’s a time consuming and somewhat thankless job, but you have to do it. Book signings are fun and I’ve done a few over the course of my three books getting released. It’s a great way to get out there and talk to readers at local bookstores.

10. Are there any tropes, clichés, or writing styles that you dislike and, if so, what are they and why?

Not particularly. The thing is, it’s all already been written before. There aren’t really any purely original stories to tell. What makes your story worthwhile is your personal spin on tropes and clichés we’ve all seen countless times before. As a writer, you just have to try and find a way to make those tropes and clichés your own, and you do that, I think, by injecting some of yourself into every story you write. There’s only one you – only one – and that is what makes your stories unique.

11. Do you read reviews of your book and, if so, how do you handle negative feedback?

I read all of them. Again, maybe my career as a journalist prepared me for harsh feedback, but, in my humble opinion, there is only one appropriate response to a negative review: Thanks for taking the time to read my work. That’s it. The bottom line is this – reviews are subjective and you can’t take it personally. I don’t see any upside to responding to negative reviews. Just move on to the next thing. You’re never going to write something that EVERYONE likes. It’s just not going to happen.

12. What are some of your quirks as a writer? Do you like to plot everything out or do you prefer to just “wing it” and see where the story takes you? Do you listen to music when writing and, if so, what do you listen to?

I rarely “wing” it. In most cases, I know the rough outlines of the beginning, middle and ending of my stories. I do often get stuck because I don’t know always know the answer to “and then what happened”, but I just write through it until I get the characters where they need to go.

Do I listen to music while I write? Never. It’s too distracting. I need quiet.

The only quirk I can think of is that, on occasion, I’ll have a glass of whiskey while I write, but those occasions are few and far between.

13. What is the best advice you’ve ever had when it comes to writing and what advice would you give to new writers?

Again, just don’t ever give up. And write for yourself, not what you think the market wants.

Also, when I was a English Literature and Creative Writing student back in the mid-nineties, I learned pretty quickly that you really have to be judicious about what feedback you listen to when you’re working on something. Again, it’s all incredibly subjective, and the honest to God truth is that there isn’t really anyone out there who knows what you’re trying to say or the best way to say it better than you do. You have to trust your instincts as a writer.

So, when I see writers on social media saying they have a dozen beta readers on their current work in progress, I have to wonder how much true value they get out of that. I have three or four beta readers, people I have known for many years, that I trust, and that’s it. And I don’t even act on all of their feedback. They’re there as a sounding board. That’s it.

14. What’s next for you? Are you currently working on any new books or stories?

I am just about to wrap up a collection of a dozen or so short horror stories (okay, one is actually now heading into novella/novel territory) set just before, during and after the U.S. Civil War. I feel like these are some of the best stories I’ve ever written and I hope they find an audience.

15. Finally, feel free to plug your social media, website, and links to Amazon, GoodReads, and other relevant sites below, and detail any current offers available for your book/s:

This is so kind of you! Thank you so very much for giving an indie author like me the chance to pontificate and share my experience with other writers.

Thank you again, Dr. K! You’re wonderful!

If you’d like to be featured in an interview, please check out the interview submissions page to submit your answers.

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