Christopher Graves is the writer of the award-winning psychological thriller screenplay, SINNER and a subsequent novel by the same title. He also wrote and plays one half of the odd couple in the buddy-flick-styled web series, WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE. – From the author’s website.
Visit Chris at: http://www.christophergraveswrites.com
Talking with Christopher Graves, Author of Sinner
Sci-Fi & Scary: How long had the idea for Sinner been in your head before you started trying to get it down on paper?
Christopher Graves: The initial idea of a whacked-out intruder taking a victim from the safety of her own bedroom came when I was jolted awake one night and didn’t immediately remember where I was. Not recognizing my surroundings, I was paralyzed to discover what I thought was a man, casually watching me from the doorway. For an excruciatingly long thirty seconds, I stared at a dark shape I was certain was a head, unable to breathe. Then my vision adjusted, revealing that the terrifying form was just a shadow. I jotted down some of the experience the next day, but ultimately began developing it into a scene a few months later as part of an artist retreat challenge in Costa Rica.
Sci-Fi & Scary: How long did it take you to write the screenplay for Sinner? How did that compare to writing the novelization?
Christopher Graves: With a bit of helpful pressure (a casting director had offered to organize and cast a reading of a finished draft), I started writing the screenplay immediately after returning from Costa Rica. True to her word, the table-read was cast and presented roughly six months later and then I finally completed it about a year after that. The novel took…longer. I think the biggest difference for me between writing a screenplay and a book was the length. I found it so intimidating at first–what if there’s no more story to tell or what if I run out of ideas or what if the new stuff slows down the pace?! However, the opportunity for a deeper dive into “how” this serial killer zealot was created drove me forward.
Sci-Fi & Scary: How many hours do you think you put into researching for Sinner?
Christopher Graves: Not having been brought up with any formal exposure to religion myself, I spent an enormous amount of time reviewing scripture. I also read a couple books and several articles chronicling the history of the Bald Knobbers. So, I’d guess I probably logged a hundred hours or more of research over the entire five+ years it took to complete both the screenplay and novel. But I can definitely say it was enough time to desensitize my previously scaredy-cat wife to the point that she actually made it through a viewing Stephen King’s IT.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Obviously, there’s a strong religious fanaticism element in your book. Do you have any reservations about the acceptance from the Christian community that seems to be very much on the defensive lately?
Christopher Graves: Sinner is not a commentary on religion itself, but rather a story about the creation and evolution of a deranged serial killer. Zeke is the product of bad people using a warped, extremist interpretation of religion to justify their misogyny and violence. So, my hope is that horror fans (including any that also happen to identify as members of the Christian community) will enjoy the same kind of adrenaline rush with my Ezekiel Woods, Jr. that they might appreciate with other terrifyingly disturbed killers like Annie Wilkes (Misery), or Phillip Jameson (Lie to Me) or Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon).
Sci-Fi & Scary: What was the most difficult part of writing Sinner?
Christopher Graves: Without question, the most difficult part was battling the fear that I simply couldn’t do it. Throughout the whole process there were whispers of doubt. There was the snarky peer that demanded to know why in the world I thought I could write without having received a formal degree in the subject, and then the even more immobilizing voice (my own), which often reminded me I would probably be much more comfortable if I would just stick to acting, stay in my lane. The temptation to quit was omnipresent. However, I was very fortunate to have been encouraged and advised along the way by several authors and other industry professionals whose invaluable support helped get me across the finish line.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Your website says you’re a fan of suspense thrillers and horror films. Stephen King commented in his Bazaar of Bad Dreams that the style of the people that you’re reading tends to come through in the story that you’re currently writing. So, who were you reading when writing Sinner?
Christopher Graves: I bet there is something to this for sure! Considering that the entire process of completing the screenplay and the book stretched over a few years, there were several folks I was reading while writing. Some of my favorites were Mo Hayder (Birdman, Poppet, The Treatment, Wolf), Sean Lynch (Wounded Prey), Lisa Gardner (Find Her), Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects), Ethan Cross (Father of Fear), and Lisa Lutz (The Passenger). I also read Gavin De Becker’s, Gift of Fear, a fantastic non-fiction book about the innate survival instinct we all share, though often ignore.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Assuming Sinner gets picked up for filming, who would you like to see in the lead roles? Why them?
Chris Cooper has been in my mind’s eye as Zeke from the very beginning. He’s one of my favorite actors who has the ability to portray a gritty, dangerous villain while also allowing flickers of desperate vulnerability to peek out from behind both a literal and metaphorical mask of terror.
Melissa Leo is the actress I see for Zeke’s mother. Similar to the character Leo played in The Fighter, Sylvia is tough as hell, with the violent temper of a hostile rattlesnake. I think watching the fury ripple through her deceptively fragile body would be petrifying.
Elizabeth Moss would be my first choice for Dani, embodying the same combination of everywoman relatability and savage tenacity. She’s someone you’d want to root for.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Your next book, Dodging Bullets, has a main character that escapes domestic abuse. Are you going to/ have you made use of a sensitivity reader for this project?
Christopher Graves: I do have a couple of readers I work with who have had personal experience with domestic abuse as well as child abuse. And while I believe it’s important to write as honestly and grungy as a scene requires, I don’t like shock-value for the sake of shock alone. I’ve been a fan of Hitchcock since I first saw Rear Window as a child (which is still one of my all-time favorite movies). The way he could create so much fear and tension, with a minimum level of onscreen violence or gore has always influenced my taste in thrillers. So, although there are moments that are violent and horrifically tragic in Dodging Bullets as well as Sinner, I try to present them in the most grounded and non-gratuitous way I can.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Speaking of horror films: What are your three favorites?
Christopher Graves: Silence of the Lambs has been number one on my list since it came out. Lecter and Buffalo Bill were completely terrifying, but watching the inexperienced and often frantic Clarice Starling stumble along made the tension absolutely relentless.
Wolf Creek also continues to stay in my top few favorites. Its few ominous bits early on, build to one of the most disturbing and spine-chilling (head-on-a-stick) moments I’ve ever seen.
The Strangers is another fave. Halfway through my first viewing, I realized I was actually holding my breath from the suspense. Its setup was so brilliant with the relatable couple-drama acting as a distraction, that when the crazy stuff began, I was just as shocked as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman were. I also discovered that although I’m not usually a screamer, it seems that the sudden explosion of my wife’s ringtone during a very tense moment can elicit a hearty and full-throated chirp!
Sci-Fi & Scary: And finally, you also mentioned on your website that you make killer customized cakes. What’s the most unique one you’ve done?
Christopher Graves: Here is the most unique followed by two of my other faves:
A revolving wig shoppe cake displaying white chocolate wig heads with a variety of wigs all made of various candy.
A baby shower cake with twin elephants that I dyed and hand sculpted from modeling chocolate.
A Knitting project cake with dyed modeling chocolate.
Sinner by Christopher Graves
As a direct descendant of the 19th century vigilante gang, the Bald Knobbers, Ezekiel Woods, Jr. has been indoctrinated into a world ruled by violence and a literal interpretation of the bible his entire life. Now, over a hundred years later, Zeke continues his ancestors’ crusade, spending his days camouflaged as an aloof middle-aged grocery store sacker and his nights in a farmhouse cellar, preparing captives’ souls for their ultimate destiny: redemption or death. His latest abductee, an indomitable Texan working her way through a third-life crisis, chooses another option: escape. Zeke must recapture this lost sheep or face a consequence far worse than any worldly fate: that God has forsaken him.