An Interview with Ian McDowell, Author & Illustrator of Alphabestiary

Austin Horne
Staff Writer

Ian McDowell is a Greensboro based author, illustrator, and journalist. A huge fan of old school creature features, science fiction, and fantasy; Ian has been writing nearly his whole life. He’s contributed short fiction to numerous publications and collections including Asimov’s Science Fiction and Mondo Zombie. Ian has also written several books of his own and has been praised by Neil Gaiman as a “post-modern Robert E. Howard.” This Saturday, his newest book Alphabestiary, a collection of poems and illustrations “for easily alarmed children and the adults who like to alarm them,” launches at Scuppernong Books.

1) You grew up in Fayetteville, what about your hometown affects your work today?

Good question. My parents moved there when I was very young because my mom was a librarian and became the reference director there (Dad was a deejay, making less money than her, and could work anywhere). At a very early age, she would take me to the library with her, put me in the staff lounge with a chocolate moon pie and a six-ounce bottled coke, and give me a stack of books with pictures of dinosaurs, dragons and monsters in them.  She was probably a bigger influence on me than anything else, hence the book’s dedication.

Fayetteville only had one bookstore when I was young, but it had this great downtown newsstand, Tyler’s News and Camera, where, after my mom died, my father took me every week.  Huge selection of magazines and paperbacks. That’s where I discovered MAD, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, CREEPY, EERIE, VAMPIRELLA, and Marvel Comics. They had a big selection of Airmont Classics paperbacks, and I discovered H. G. Wells there, then moved on to more modern science fiction and fantasy, although “modern” included reprints of 1930s pulp like Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.  At the age of 15, I started working there, and by the time I was 17, was working by myself and reading everything in the store that looked interesting on slow summer weekdays – Lester Bang’s rock criticism in CRAWDADDY, a profile of Jackie Chan in BLACK BELT (years before any of his films were shown here), PLAYBOY (which I actually did read, albeit more for the great range of genre fiction they published than the articles), and even really trashy “Men’s Adventure” novels, as well as experimental New Wave science fiction by people like Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock.

Another huge influence was the Fayetteville Little Theater, in which my dad regularly acted and directed with our neighbor Tom Savini, who would later create the Jason make-up for FRIDAY THE 13th, as well as CREEPSHOW and the first DAWN OF THE DEAD.

2) You’re described as “An old-school Monster Kid” and Alphabestiary confirms your appreciation for creatures. Do you have a favorite monster/villain?

My FIRST favorite was the Creature from the Black Lagoon, followed by Godzilla. I was a reptile and dinosaur kid before I was a monster kid. Then my mom took me to lunch at Sears, back when downtown department stores had lunch counters, and it was near the toy section. There I found the Aurora model kits of classic movie monsters. I didn’t know who or what any of them were, but the Creature looked reptilian (he is, of course, actually a fish-man), and Godzilla was clearly a dinosaur. She bought me the Creature, and later, the Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and Godzilla. She also bought me my first issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and I knew all about the classic monsters before I began watching them on Sunrise Theater at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and then, years after she died, on Shock Theater out of WGHP in High Point, hosted by Dr. Paul Bearer.

My favorites are Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula, and the Creature.  But I was also fascinated by Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde, even though I only knew him in photos and from the model kit, as the film had been taken out of circulation and wasn’t re-released until I was in college.  He looked like a werewolf, but wore fancy clothes and a cape like Dracula, and could talk, and I thought that was really cool.

3) You’ve published a lot of writing throughout your career, but this is the first time you’ve drawn illustrations alongside it. What was it like drawing something to go along with your poetry or vice versa?

I was drawing long before I was writing, and got in trouble for it regularly from grade school through high school. As a teenager, I really wanted to be a comic book artist like my idols Bernie Wrightson and Wally Wood. Unfortunately, all I was every any good at drawing is monsters.  I’m hopeless with normal people unless I can caricature them and make them look goofy, and my backgrounds and landscapes suck.

I’ve attempted to sell illustrations with my stories in the past, but for one reason or another, it’s always fallen through.  I did sell some covers to DEATHREALM, a much-missed horror magazine published by Greensboro writer Mark Rainey in the 90s, and they were popular. One was even banned by Canadian customs.

4) Jumping off that, do you have a favorite poem or illustration in Alphabestiary?

The Terror-Fairy, as it’s my friend Tara Funicello, and the Ogress, because it’s my favorite combination of image and verse.

5) You received an MFA in Creative Writing from UNCG. As an experienced writer, do you have any advice for students in the program? 

Shut up, sit there, and listen to what the other students say about your work. Don’t try to argue, and for God’s sake, don’t be like that idiot who would write five page response to the class critique, photocopy them and hand them out to everybody (I was always afraid that guy would bring a gun one day).

Seriously, the very act of having to sit there and silently listen to what twenty people thought of your story is invaluable, even if they’re idiots and their opinions are stupid.

6) Recently, you’ve jumped back into writing fiction with Under The Flag of Night and now Alphabestiary. What are you excited to work on next?

I suffered a head injury in 2016 that, following chemotherapy a few years earlier, has made my “Chemo Brain” linger far longer than it should have.  Because of this, I don’t seem to have the mental injury for much fiction writing, which I deeply regret, as I want to turn my unsold novella “Black Boy, Black Bird” into a novel.  It’s kind of like OLD YELLER, only with a teenage girl living in the country outside Greensboro who adopts a giant prehistoric bird in the early 1970s.

7) You’re also a journalist for Yes! Weekly. What’s your favorite thing about the job?

Spreading awareness of the case of Marcus Deon Smith, the homeless African-American man fatally hogtied by the Greensboro police at the 2018 NC Folk Festival.

8) Thanks a ton for talking with me today! Is there somewhere interested readers can follow you online?

Just my Facebook page, and my Twitter, @IanKeithMcDowell

Ian’s newest book, Alphabestiary, is launching this Saturday, February 22nd 7 PM, at Scuppernong Books.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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