[INTERVIEW/AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT] Mark Allan Gunnells discusses “When It Rains”

It may be dangerous to go out in the rain…
But it may be even more dangerous to stay inside.

Just after noon on a sunny spring day at Friedkin University, a layer of strange clouds smudges across the sky, and a mysterious rain begins to fall. This isn’t just a surprise spell of rain—this substance is slimy and gelatinous…and it’s not letting up any time soon.

The rain spreads across the country, the hemisphere, and the globe, with growing ripples of panic and paranoia gathering behind it. Is it a natural, undocumented phenomenon? A chemical weapon? Some kind of bacterial contagion? As fear turns theories into conspiracies and no clear answers are given, factions start to form between those who have been exposed to the rain and those who stayed dry. Who is safe? Who is marked? Who is dangerous, and who is not?

The rain keeps falling, and at Friedkin University, the sanctuary of the campus bookstore swiftly becomes a dangerous battlefield. Is it man versus nature? Or man versus man?

PRE-ORDER BELOW

THE INTERVIEW

Some minor spoilers follow. Questions considered more substantial in spoiling have been marked accordingly.

When you started When It Rains, how much of the idea was developed? What did you start with?

The original idea was based on the real-life incident I mention, where a slimy rain fell over a town in Washington State, and I knew I wanted to expand this into something global and explore paranoia and fear. Initially, I did not have the ending figured out, was planning something a little more straight-forward, but when I came up with the twist at the end, I got very excited. The idea of using the excerpts from the book to give a more historical perspective was also a late addition to the process.

Did you always figure this would be a story told through a cast of different perspectives rather than one or two leads?

I did conceive of it as being told through multiple perspectives, but honestly when I started, I had no idea how many perspectives and exactly which characters I would use for that purpose. I let that develop organically, and when I would get to a new scene, I would think, “Okay, who would be the most interesting person’s eyes to see this part of the story through.”

When writing, did you have more than one idea on how things would end or did you have that pretty figured out from the start?

[O]riginally, I conceived of a more straight-forward ending, but by the time I actually sat down to write it, I definitely knew how it was going to end. Figuring out that ending is what really excited me to finally start the thing. I will say, I didn’t know who all would be exposed to the rain and who would live or die. Some characters, yes, I did know from the beginning what their fates would be, but others were up in the air, and I just let myself discover their fates as the story unfolded.

Authors tend to write themselves into their casts. Which character(s) did/do you most connect with in this story?

I can’t say any of the characters was me, but interestingly enough the locale for the story is very much based on the university bookstore where I work. It is modeled very much after the store and when I envision the action, it is my store I see. I will say that the character of Tony has the job I had at the time of writing it, so while his life in no way reflects my own, I put him in my place at the store.

Had you been in this strange rain situation, how do you think you would have acted? Which side of the store would you have taken? How would you have voted?

Well, I like to think I would have been compassionate and not so quick to panic. Of course, I think we all like to think that. Fact is, if we’ve never been in such a situation, we can never really know. That’s part of the fun of this kind of story, vicariously putting ourselves in a situation and extrapolating how we would have reacted. Still, I think I’d have kept a level head and tried to be the voice of reason. As unrelated as it sounds, growing up gay in the south in the 80s, living through an era of AIDS hysteria, I know how people can demonize others and want to cast them out, so I like to think I would never resort to that kind of behavior.

It seems the COVID pandemic was influence for this novella. How did the pandemic help paint this story? Your writing? Your daily habits while putting this story to paper?

Well, the novella was written during the early period of the pandemic, during the two months I was furloughed from work. So, while I didn’t want to directly comment on the pandemic, I was channeling all my anxiety about what was going on into the story. I needed something to keep my worries from eating me alive, so while I was out of work and pretty much not leaving my house at all, I decided to act like I was a full-time writer, to tell myself that story. I became incredibly disciplined in my writing, spending several hours every morning at it. And it actually did help. It didn’t erase my anxiety, but it helped me keep it under control.

The paranoia and panic that develops throughout this novella comes very close to home, considering all that has been going on these last two years. What was it like writing that unraveling? Did they make you anxious to write? They made me anxious to read.

Oddly, it helped me feel less anxious to write it. I agree, it felt all too real, all too relatable, and I didn’t want to shy away from the stupidity and vileness of which humans can be capable. Therefore, I didn’t hold back. However, whereas in real life I have no control over a lot of things, particularly the real-life pandemic and people’s reactions to it, in the story I had total control. Horrible things may happen, but I controlled them. So, in a weird way writing the unraveling felt therapeutic in a strange way.

The Washington rain that happened previously…what is your explanation for that? Was it a test run or sorts?

I think part of what intrigued me so much about the Washington case and made me want to write something about it was the fact that no one ever came up with a definitive explanation. There are unproven theories but to this day, no one knows for sure. They explored the idea that a commercial airliner accidentally released the waste from its toilets over the town, and while they haven’t found any evidence to confirm that, it seems the most likely. But the fact that the mystery endures sparked my imagination.

THE FINAL TWO QUESTIONS HAVE A SPOILER WARNING – DO NOT PROCEED IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS NOVELLA YET

Why did you choose to end the story with questions left unanswered?

I am a firm believer that ambiguity is a great tool for the horror story. I think unanswered questions can linger in a reader’s mind, haunting them, making them remember the story for much longer than if everything had been nearly tied up with a bow at the end. I feel not enough modern horror, especially films, employ ambiguity to the degree that it can be effective. Any explanation I might have given would have felt silly to some, inadequate, but the question mark I left dangling … well, for me, that gives the story an extra spookiness.

Do you think we will ever get a sequel that explores the rain and the aftermath further?

I don’t think so. For me, the rain and the aftermath weren’t as important as how people reacted in the moment. I used the rain as a device to explore paranoia and fear, to see who becomes heroic and who looks for scapegoats in a crisis. I felt I accomplished all that, and the story is done for me. Of course, never say never. I never thought I’d write a sequel to my novel The Quarry, and years later an idea suddenly occurred to me and The Cult of Ocasta was born. So, I am thinking no, but I always leave the door cracked for inspiration to sneak in.

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