In Conversation with Riley Cain

For as long as I can remember I’ve been writing. I used to pen short stories for my classmates, little amusing adventure stories.

As to ‘why’ I started writing, it is simply because I had to, there’s no other way to explain it. It’s just always been there, the imagining of stories I think are entertaining coupled with the desire to communicate them. It’s the thing that gives me purpose and the greatest joy. I’ve always thought that if I examine that part too closely, I’ll expose the ‘truth’ behind the magic and lose the ability or desire to write. I’m at it so long now, it’s quite simply part of me.

Growing up, I had no particular style of writing or genre until I came across Stephen King. Typical teenager, I was into all his creepy offerings, but it slowly went beyond that. The more I read, the more I understood that King was one in a long line of writers of the supernatural fiction that held me in its chilling grasp. King led me to Poe, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Ann Radcliffe and to a world of fiction I immersed myself in – and unconsciously learned from. I discovered Bram Stoker and J.S. Le Fanu myself, and was thrilled to learn that Irish writers had a place among the greats I loved. That was a boost to my own aspirations.

Did you take any formal qualification (e.g. creative writing, or English lit) before starting writing or after? Do you think studies are necessary to write or not?

I never actively studied formally to write (unless you count my voracious appetite for reading!). Quite simply, I tried, failed, tried again and failed better, as Samuel Beckett advised. And I’ve loved that process of working to understand why a particular paragraph works, coming to see the writer’s hidden hand in setting up that line perhaps chapters before, the nuts and bolts of the tale.

That said, I would never knock anyone choosing a formal learning path, there must be so much pleasure in studying literature or the written word in that setting, and many gain from the approach – the ongoing appeal of writing and book clubs attests to that.

Perhaps I would have benefitted from a tutorial hand guiding me through it all, but I am that type of writer who likes distance, solitude. I have to admit, my journey to now has been tremendous fun and I could not picture myself swapping it. (It all involves reading!)

Do you have a writing routine? If not, what would be your ideal writing day?

My routine begins long before I start writing. In the weeks before the idea churning in my mind takes on a form I can pursue across the page, I seek out mood music. Both Banshee Rising and The Curse of Silver and Sunlight have ‘title tracks’. Very important. On any given morning I set up to write, if the mood isn’t quite right, the headphones go on and I belt out the track to put me right into the space – or as I like to put it, onto the set; I love movies and much of my process is a visual scene-setting.

When I’m into a good routine, I’ll write from early morning to the afternoon and then get a long walk in. That lets me regret everything I just typed and plot for better scenes the next day.

You started with a traditional publisher, but you then decided to switch to self-publishing. How was your experience with traditional publishing and why did you decide to switch?

Without traditional publishing, it is unlikely The Halloween House could have been published. The illustrations that are such a big part of that book are an element no writer could afford going solo. I’ll always be grateful for the publisher backing me on that.

The decision to switch was prompted by the realities of trad publishing; I had what I believed was a great story to tell –The Curse of Silver and Sunlight – but the publisher I was with could not take on any more projects at the time. Having played the soul-crushing game of submit-rejection-submit-rejection, I studied the growing trend of self-publishing and came to realise that I had a major advantage in considering that path. Far from being alone, I had access to a great editor, Ciara O’Hara of Purple Crayon (whom I had come to know in publishing Banshee Rising), and a fantastic book designer, Alba Esteban (who has designed all of my books to date, trad and solo). The jump to self-publishing was made easier with the support Ciara and Alba offered.

What are the pros and cons of such a choice?

The obvious con in self-publishing is the marketing element. It’s entirely up to the individual. I’ve learned a lot in the switch – I’m still learning – and am getting better at promoting my books. Social media was a steep learning curve, but with a website under me now – – I have a foundation, a presence, which I can grow.

The pro is, you are the shopkeeper, you control and offer the product. How far you want to take it is up to you as your own promoter.

We know that a lot of ‘traditional’ publishers out there are, in reality, vanity publishers. Did you ever come across any of them? If so, what are the red flags to look for?

If a publisher asks you to pay for your book to be published, run. No real publisher will do that, it’s not the business. Even the self-publishing portals online offer a free ‘in’. What money I have goes to Ciara’s work on my behalf and Alba’s illustrations. I run the business of Riley Cain. You pay for your book to be published and you will still find yourself promoting it yourself, so save your pennies and be prepared to put the work in.

Your genre and target audience: you chose spooky stories for teenagers and YA. Why this choice? Did you think/are you thinking about writing for adults and why or why not?

The choice of spooky reads was partly mine, and partly from recognising that my original audience, my nieces and nephews, loved a spooky tale despite being totally different from one another. It’s almost universal, that behind-the-cushion thrill of a good scare. So it felt entirely ‘normal’ for me to work up spooky tales and write them down. That said, I am planning older audience books, starting in 2024. I’m committed to continuing the Benjamin Blake series that began with The Curse of Silver and Sunlight, but I have a ‘definitely-not-for-kids’ book that will come together next year. Watch this space!

Of course as a writer you should be also a great reader. What are your favourite genre and books? What are you currently reading?

I. Read. Everything. I continue to source supernatural short stories to add to an extensive collection, but I also crave history books of all kinds. I just finished a biography of David Bowie, I’m currently reading a history of Gothic Literature, and getting set to plunge into a history of the American Revolutionary War. I read for pure pleasure but always with an eye for a great detail. Nerd fact: the naming of Brill/Brilliana in The Curse of Silver and Sunlight, which becomes a key element in the story, came from reading a book on the English Civil War.

Plans for the future? What’s next?

I keep writing. The Revenge of Billy Buckler (Benjamin Blake II) comes out in the Spring of ‘24. In the run-up to that, I have to keep experimenting with social media to find the most effective methods of promoting my books – I’m getting there. I have a wealth of story ideas to keep me busy for a few years yet, and having now seen my work in print, I’m as eager as ever to add to the ‘Riley Cain Collection’. I have plenty of stories for those dark October nights still to tell.

Leave a Reply