An Interview with TC Schueler, Author of “22 Dutch Road”

Tim “T.C.” Schueler lives with his wife and two children in Cary, an incorporated area just outside of Raleigh, NC. He graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in civil engineering and has spent his professional life pursuing solutions to ecological problems, such as wetland loss.  He grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. A boyhood fascination with Chesapeake Bay rivers still lives within him. He swims regularly (in pools, not  rivers) and enjoys the outdoors. He is an omnivorous reader who took up writing at the age of 50.

Hi Tim, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your novel, 22 Dutch Road.

A young man, Billy, returns to his deceased father’s home to claim a small but much needed inheritance. His divorced father, Richard, who he hated, still looms large in Billy’s life. Richard’s estate—investments, plus a soon to be auctioned off suburban mansion-ette—is in hock. Billy’s only been to his father’s house once before, but he remembers the layout well enough to be surprised by two dozen samurai statues around the property’s perimeter. It’s puzzling; his father had never been interested it art. Billy enters the house and shortly thereafter begins to hear his deceased father’s voice. This is an impossibility he wishes to flee from, but  he can’t leave the house without forfeiting the inheritance (it’s a condition of his father’s will that he must stay there five nights). From there, the reader gets to witness  how determined (and unhealthy) Billy ultimately becomes to get his inheritance.

22 Dutch Road is your literary debut – what motivated you to sit down and write a novel?

I read extensively, which sounds great, but most of it is escapist:  post-apocalyptic tales, ghost stories, military heroics: in a word, boy-books, some of which are quite trashy (which I mean in the unsavory sense, not the bodice-ripping sense). I do read “real” books, Pulitzer prize winners like The Goldfinch and autobiographies including Obama’s recent memoir. At the end of the day, however, I usually want to read about how the last remnants of humanity are faring against the surging zombie hordes, because compared to that, my problems are non-problems.  But after years of this, I realized (finally) that some books were better than others—some far better. After a particularly bad stinker, I found myself saying, “This novel is so awful, I can write something better.”  I took myself up on that challenge. Plus the monkeys told me to do it.

What was your inspiration behind the storyline?

I thought a forced stay at an ancestral home where statues stomped about would be the kind of spooky story I would want to read; perhaps others would, too.

Tell us a bit about your protagonist, Billy. What motivates him?

Initially, it’s obvious that Billy needs money to service debt. (He and his mother live paycheck to paycheck; recent events have made them miss rent for a small apartment in Arkansas.) Past antagonism between Richard and his mother have  created understandable abandonment issues for Billy; getting a small amount of money from his father’s estate doesn’t satisfy this, but it is at least something.  He has other more positive motivations as well. He’s family oriented. He’s quiet, yet socially engaging. He’s in love with his girlfriend, Mandy, now away at school. (Billy can’t afford to go to college.) He has a natural talent for fixing things, and he’s never met a tool he didn’t like. He’s more than just a tinkerer, however; he can think in three dimensions with a photographic memory. This talent motivated him to learn HVAC, which he was doing before falling ill with painful migraines. Now, the fear of permanent illness is his main motivator.

How did you develop your characters?

From the beginning, I had a general idea of what Billy was like, where he came from, his strengths and weaknesses. I knew that his father would be despicable. I also knew there would be a cute, scrappy dog who was important to the story (but not exactly why). I knew Billy would be an underdog. Developing Richard,  an overbearing selfish dad, was easy. I have tremendous respect for my deceased father, so I would just ask myself, “In this situation, what would my father do?” Then I would have Richard do the opposite. The secondary characters all grew organically, I learned about them as I went along. And the monkeys pitched in.

Who was your favorite character to develop (and why)?

I became fond of several secondary “bad guys” to the point that I couldn’t kill them all off. The story needed a lawyer, for example, someone to handle the sale of  Richard Buchanan’s estate, someone to lure Billy to his father’s house. In two words, I needed a scumbag lawyer. But I couldn’t let him be that simple. I developed understandable reasons for him tricking Billy into driving 12 hours from Little Rock, AR to Rock Hill, SC. He, Deacon Bates, the scumbag anal-retentive lawyer with limited people skills. It’s fun to write about jerks.

What kind of research was involved in preparing to write a horror story?

I read a number of books on how to write, specifically On Writing by Stephen King and The Power of Story by Jim Loehr. I found these books, and others like them, very useful, and so was The Elements of Style.

I didn’t do a lot of research at first, but as I started to develop the nitty-gritty character detail, it became necessary. Examples: Billy’s medical condition and the medication that arrests it, the distances and highways between several real world locations, the dimensions of a typical conversation pit, the basics of handwriting analysis, the burial practices of various faiths, plus getting reacquainted with the rules of poker. I asked a mechanically inclined friend for examples of high end garage tools. I could have researched that, but it was more fulfilling to ask him. And faster.

How long did it take you to write 22 Dutch Road?

Three and a half years.

Talk about your writing process. Do you have a routine?

I developed writing processes mostly the hard way, but I did get a few things right from the beginning. I knew that I tend to go deeply down rabbit holes (sometimes a necessary trait for an engineer like me but potentially dangerous for a novelist) so I limited the main story to a one week period, with each chapter covering a day or a portion of a day. That was a very helpful guardrail.

The book was written on weekends, about one hour each weeknight, every single lunch hour for 3.5 years, holidays and time I just took off from work. It was a daunting, and at times, overwhelming process, but I stuck with it: “I’m gonna write this novel even if it kills me.” Plus, the monkeys gave me no choice.

Did you let Billy dictate the story or did you map things out first?

I initially tried to write the way Stephen King says he writes—sitting down with an idea and following it wherever it goes—but that didn’t work for me. I needed an outline,  or I knew I’d never finish. I generally wrote in chronologic order but did jump around a bit when I was stuck.

How about all those twists? Our reviewer said they made her think twice about what was real and what wasn’t. How do you come up with new and engaging twists that not only keep your readers guessing, but keep them reading throughout the night?

I respect a book whose ending I can’t predict. “Holy cow, I never expected that!” is a great thing to say about a story. I discovered that plotlines could become complicated quickly. This worried me because I had a number of plotlines. It required some pretty convoluted plot twisting to stitch them together. Though most everything is foreshadowed in the book (albeit sometimes obscurely), there are several left turns to keep the reader guessing. Some of the twists I had in mind from the beginning but most I discovered along the way. I think one personal victory from writing 22 Dutch Road is that no one so correctly predicted where it would end up.

Our reviewer also said you “…did an amazing job at drawing a perfect contrast between family acting like strangers and a stranger becoming practically family overnight, which seemed to be one of the morals of the story.” What do you hope readers take away from some of the more real-world relatable aspects of your story?

I was worried about the trope-ness of a father son conflict, so I made sure Billy shared a few of his father’s bad habits—“The apple does not fall far from the tree.”—and Richard had at least the possibility of good traits. Their many negative interactions support the unfortunate “you can’t pick your family” dynamic.

Does this explain Billy’s close relationship with his mother and his fondness for his aunts and uncles? Yes, at least somewhat. Billy has a close childhood friend as well, Dwayne, and although things between them had recently become rocky, their friendship represents family through choice. Billy, as one might expect, is a sucker for paternal figures. Stan Rutmeyer, one of Richard’s neighbors, plays prominently in the story and is another example of family through choice. Still, there is a lot of biological family: Deacon Bates, the dastardly lawyer, has a very sick child, Emily, who represents the only link to Deacon’s deceased wife. The lengths to which Deacon would go to protect his daughter were wonderful to discover.

22 Dutch Road has been called a blending of genres, to include horror, fantasy, mystery, psychological thriller, suspense and even humor. How would you classify your novel?

That’s a fair question but one I don’t have a clear answer for. When I began writing, I did not know the following:

  1. Blending genres is dangerous. I was lucky to be ignorant of this fact.
  2. Some people find genre mixing unwanted and/or too complex. A family member compared reading the novel with being taken by helicopter to some distant, dangerous island, being given a candy bar and a bottle of water, then being pushed out the door as the pilot yells, “Good luck, hope you survive keeping track of it all.”

I still call the end product “horror,” but supernatural mystery might be closer.

What prompted you to incorporate different elements from multiple genres, was this planned or did it happen organically?

Multiple genres was not my original intention. I first thought the book would be straight up horror (statues chasing people down hallways, etcetera) and I went for that. Specifically, I went for the kind of horror you find in Stephen King’s later works, ones with a lot of character development (not just blood and death from cover to cover). I also planned the psychological element. I planned some humor  to break up the tension a bit.  The mystery and suspense, however, developed on their own accord as did the “fantastic” elements and the science fiction.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?

I was surprised at discovering how real the characters became to me. Sure, as an author, I have a god-like power to create worlds, but in the end the characters often showed me what to write. At some point, I realized I was just along for the ride.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?

Writing can be very lonely.

What do you like to read and which authors have inspired your own work as a writer?

I read a variety of stuff and usually read what other people give me. I’ve alluded to the trashy books, including a lot of science fiction. For the purposes of 22 Dutch Road, mainstream authors such as Dean Koontz and Stephen King have been important. Recently, I’ve been reading some non-fiction in support of my next project including treatises on fanatism, extremism, and biker hierarchy. The most recent fiction books I’ve read are Stephen King’s Later (no surprise) and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, a well written novel about the AIDS epidemic given to me by my sister-in-law.

Being an author can be a full-time job these days. What do you enjoy most about the process? And the least?

The least enjoyable part of writing is what I call the vomit stage. This is when I take the general outline for a chapter and just start writing anything and everything, no matter how trivial. I always end up with something not just awful but incomprehensible. Next comes the “dry heaves,” cleaning the first draft up so that it is at least recognizable as written English. Next comes my favorite part, editing. Editing is easier than writing. I don’t necessarily enjoy writing, but it’s obviously needed to get to the editing stage.

Describe how you felt when you first held a copy of your novel in your hands.

I remember thinking:

a. This looks suspiciously like a real book. It’s got a cover and everything!
b. It’s thick and heavy enough to be used as a murder weapon.

What has the general response been to 22 Dutch Road?

It has been better than I anticipated. Most people liked the genre-bending. Everyone loves the dog, Mr. Peebles. (It’s hard to go wrong with a dog.) I entered 22 Dutch Road into some contests. It came in as a finalist for one contest  and won the 2021 Reader Views award for horror. That was really great.

How does your family support your writing? Were they surprised when you told them you were writing a book? (Or did you keep it a secret until it was finished)?

Mr. Peebles

The first year or so, I sort of disappeared into the attic. That would have been okay if I didn’t have a wife, two kids, and a dog that insists on being walked. Writing is solitary work; there’s no getting around that. However, because I’m not a complete idiot, I picked up on the fact that my absence was noticed, so I was straight with my family, explaining how important the writing was for me. (I did not tell them about the monkeys.)  They, my family, not the monkeys, were supportive. My wife, who is obscenely rational, suggested, “Hey, Tim, why don’t you just write at the kitchen table. That way we can at least see you.” She’s brilliant! I began asking my family questions about things for the book. That led to my wife becoming one of my first editors. My son actually proofed the first five chapters. His youthful eyes caught things, such as a direct contradiction within one sentence, that I never would have found myself.  

What do you like to do outside of writing? What are some of your other passions?

I am passionate about the environment, something passed down to me through my parents. I get to do environmental work (wetland creation and stream restoration) professionally, for which I am grateful. I’m an avid supporter of the recovery community. I throw tennis balls for a dog who will retrieve them if a treat is involved. I’m a lifelong swimmer. I read, every day, for at least an hour.

Where do you go from here? Do you have any other writing projects you’re working on that you’d like to share? What can your readers expect to see next?

I’m working on another novel, set in the Washington, DC area between 1998 and 2000. It’s about a group of men who, out of jealousy of their wives’ book clubs, start their own: The Evil Men’s Book Club. They don’t want “sensitive, emotional” books, they want books that appeal to men: action, war, sex, death, humor, debauchery, and perhaps a bit of wisdom if it’s not too heavy. The club is mainly an excuse to get together once a month in a bar to drink beer. They start with more well-known books like Lolita and Last Exit to Brooklyn, before going farther afield. The “lark” activity turns serious when a mentally unstable street hustler named Prophet “curses” them, predicting that each member would lose his job, his woman, and in some cases, his life. This is laughed off, until it starts to happen. I’m shooting for completion in 2022.

Considering your own debut journey, what advice can you give to aspiring authors?

When in doubt, keep writing, even if what appears on the screen doesn’t ring true or it feels like trash. Sometimes the trash needs to be written before the good stuff appears. Keep the trash for a few days or even a week; there may be nuggets of gold mixed in that you discover later. Have the computer read your story back to you. You catch a lot of errors that way.

One trick I used was the letter “X.” I was constantly forgetting names or not coming up with the right word, so in order not to get bogged down, I typed an “X” and kept going. Usually, the right word occurs to me later. Here’s an example: He stood at the threshold, brandishing an X, as X opened the door. “Hello,” said X. Silly, but it works for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, about those monkeys. let me explain. In high school,  like most students at the time, I took the SAT. My verbal and math scores were comparable, but the math score was higher. My teachers told the students that engineering was the wave of the future. Being at the time a compliant young man with a great fear of my prospects, I took their advice and majored in civil engineering. It turned out to be a solid move for me—I am grateful for my parents’ sacrifices so I could go to school. I am also grateful for courses we civvies colloquially called “dirt,” “water,” “rocks,” and “busting things lab.”

But the monkeys, who I did not know were monkeys at the time, said: You made the safe choice, Tim. The other choice apparently wasn’t happy with me going the geek route. “Well, tough,” I said. In life, you have finite resources, limited time, etcetera, etcetera. So, I told the voices to shut up.

They did not shut up.

As time went on, I worried that I might have made the wrong choice (I hadn’t, but feelings and facts don’t always agree.) The monkeys, seeing my stubbornness, took a different tact. They began whispering things like, “Hey, this idea would make a great short story, so why don’t you write it?” I continued shushing them. Over the years, the monkeys became more insistent, filling my head with stuff, especially character dialogue. At first, I entertained these voices, in my head, where no one knew I was doing it. That worked, until it didn’t, so then I started lip-synching dialogue, until that stopped working and finally it was popcorn time because I actually recited the dialogs out loud (albeit quietly).  Many people, including myself, found this unnerving. I blamed my mean monkeys for pushing things into a low grade mental health issue. It got worse: the monkeys kept shoveling ideas into my brain like they were feeding a coal furnace, to the point that my skull was uncomfortably tight.

I can deal with a lot of things in life, but pain is not one of them. “What do I have to do to get you mean monkeys to shut up?”

“Hey, buddy, do what we’ve been asking for, you numbskull. Write your ideas down.”

It worked immediately. I remember feeling giddy, like Heidi, but without the alpine dress.

Now that I’m writing, the monkeys keep quiet. Everybody wins.

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