Interview of Pierre V. Comtois

Pierre Comtois (far right) at launch event for Fungi Magazine #20 with (from left) David Daniel, Dale Phillips & Joshua Shapiro.

 

Pierre Comtois is one of Lowell’s most prolific authors, past and present. He burst on the scene in 2015 with Marvel Comics in the 1960s: An Issue-by-Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon which emerged from the author’s lifelong interest in comic books. His subsequent works include science fiction, history, and a young adult novel. Along the way he has edited and produced 23 issues of Fungi: A Magazine of Fantasy and Weird Fiction.

Pierre has two stories posted on this site: I Was a Teenage Bibliophile on August 14, 2021, and Lowell’s Mister Softee on September 20, 2021. More information about Pierre and all his books can be found on his website, pierrevcomtois.com.

Pierre recently met with Richard Howe via Zoom to discuss his books and how his experience of growing up and living in Lowell influenced them. Following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Interviewer: Where did you grow up and what were your memories?

Pierre Comtois: I was born in Lowell in 1955 at St Joseph’s Hospital which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now that white whale that the college built there. They took me home to Beaudry Street in Centralville where we lived for a few years. Then we moved to Salem for a year or two and then we moved back to Lowell to my current home on Desroisers Street where I’ve lived ever since. I’m the last one here. All my brothers and sisters have married or moved out, most gone to Florida. But we all still come together often. We have a big, extended family now.

Almost immediately after we moved back to Lowell from Salem was when my father became a Mister Softee. I remember the truck being parked out front and him going back and forth to the backyard to go in the cellar to get his supplies. It seemed like an insecure or vulnerable spot to leave an ice cream truck all winter. About a year later he built a three-stall garage on our property for the truck. I have many memories of that truck and the garage. I must have washed it thousands of times! With my sisters, I helped to make the Chillaroos too.

I had great friends. I always thought our little Desrosiers Street neighborhood was the city’s best kept secret. It was a very bucolic, suburban neighborhood. It wasn’t like the rest of Lowell that had tenements and all that stuff. We were right on the Lowell line and right down the street was Dracut which was even more spread out so there were a lot of empty fields and trees. If I walked five minutes towards Dracut, I’d be right in the woods. We spent a lot of time playing in the woods.

In the other direction was downtown Lowell. No parent would allow this today, but back then, on Saturday afternoons me and my friends would get on our bikes and drive to downtown Lowell to the Strand Theatre for double features that included monster movies or science fiction movies. Across the street from the Strand was Harvey’s Bookland where I would buy or sell my comic books.

I sold them because every fall, my father would make me sell my comic books before school started. It wasn’t until high school that I could start collecting and keeping my comics. At one point, after I began collecting back issues, I was probably buying my own comic books back from Harvey’s!

Interviewer: Why would your dad force you to sell your comic books?

Pierre Comtois: I was a C student most of the time in elementary school. My father had a rule, after supper it was homework, read or bed. There was no TV. If you wanted to stay up and you were finished your homework, you had to read. One of my father’s attempts to perk up my grades was to take away my comic books since he thought maybe I was distracted by them. So he made me sell them at the end of the summer which was a very difficult thing for me to do.

Interviewer: Where did you go to elementary school?

I went to St. Louis Elementary School at St. Louis Parish. I went there for technically eight years, but I stayed back in fourth grade. For my last year, I wasn’t getting along with my siblings so my parents sent me to a boarding school, Sacred Heart School in Andover, for a year. I hated that school but I also hated the Robinson School where I went the year after. I was too late to sign up for St. Joseph’s High School so I ended up at the Robinson Middle School which was even worse. I called it the eighth ring of hell!

Interviewer: Did you end up at St. Joseph’s High School?

Pierre Comtois: Yeah, I ended up at St. Joe’s as a sophomore which was the best choice ever. It was a great school. I fit in and made a lot of good friends.

Interviewer: After high school did you work or did you go right to college?

Pierre Comtois: I worked two years for Jerry’s Army Navy Store in downtown Lowell on Central Street. That’s where I reconnected with buying old comic books because right next store was Harvey’s. I went over there and I saw an old comic book that hit me right between the eyes, nostalgia-wise. But it was a dollar and I told myself, “I’m not going to pay a dollar for a comic book.” But I did buy it and when I got home and looked through it, I thought, what a great comic book! I’d forgotten how good the older comics were. I had to have more! So after that, I’d work for a week at Jerry’s then take $10 and buy back issues at Harvey’s. That’s where I got 80 percent of my collection. The rest of the money went in the bank to pay for college.

When I quit working after two years, I went to Salem State. In those days, you could work for two years and save enough to pay for your college education. I think it was only a few hundred dollars a semester.

Interviewer: What did you study at Salem State?

Pierre Comtois: I majored in English and minored in Communications. I always wanted to be a writer and the only employment I could think of as a writer was being a journalist.

Interviewer: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Pierre Comtois: Probably around the fourth grade. I was really getting into reading, I was a heavy reader. At school, they promoted it with the help of the Scholastic Book Club. If you read a certain number of books you might get a free one or a pin or a membership card that proclaimed you to be a good reader. There were a lot of incentives.

Then there were the TV shows. I was into TV shows like the Outer Limits and other science fiction shows and war movies. That got me into reading science fiction and nonfiction too. I liked anything on World War II. By the fourth, fifth, sixth grades, I was reading a lot.

Of course, the next thing I discovered was that reading was not enough. It just didn’t seem fulfilling enough. Something more was needed to fulfill my enjoyment of the subject matter and that was to write it myself, to write my own stories. By the fourth or fifth grade I had started writing a novel called, Gateway to the Future. I used portions of it to head my chapters in Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls. Of course, it wasn’t good! I still have the manuscript. I’ll look it over now and then and say, “Man, this is horrible!” But at the time, I thought I was doing a good job. I had an older cousin in Salem who was taking typing lessons so she would type the chapters for me as I wrote it. But I never finished the novel. That was my first attempt at creative writing.

Then I tried short stories. I would send them to science fiction magazines in the belief they were good enough but they were rejected. It took many, many years for me to become good enough to finally get stuff published.

Interviewer: Was there anyone in your life who encouraged you to write?

Pierre Comtois: I had no real encouragement sad to say. No one in my family read my stuff. My parents probably really didn’t understand what I was reading or my creative yearnings. They were old fashioned in that they thought science fiction was crazy stuff so they had no sympathy for the things that I was interested in.

The first real encouragement I received for what I wanted to write came many years later when I was about 28 years old. I opened up a comic bookstore on Pawtucket Street in Lowell. It lasted a year before it failed but what I got out of that store was a handful of really good friends. We remain friends today. We still get together thirty-five years later to talk comic books, books, movies, and records.

A couple of them were artists so when I closed the store, I asked them, “Why don’t we do a magazine based on horror and fantasy?” They were interested and as a result, we launched Fungi magazine. We all worked on different parts of it but I didn’t know anyone else who wrote so I had to write 90 percent of it myself. That forced me to crank out articles and short stories. Eventually that honed my skills and I started sending stuff out to other publishers. I discovered that there were several small press magazines out there that published weird fiction. This was all before the internet so it was harder to find and connect with them but I eventually did and they started publishing my short stories. That gave me the encouragement to keep writing. That’s how it all began.

Interviewer: Who are the friends involved in this?

Pierre Comtois: The friends I met through my comic bookstore were teenagers while I was around 27 years old. There was a huge gap between our ages but when we talked about the things we were interested in, there was no difference between our ages. We were enthusiastic about the same things and we remained that way in all the years since.

Interviewer: Tell me a little about how Fungi magazine was produced in the days before desktop publishing.

Pierre Comtois: The first issue was extremely primitive. I typed it on a manual typewriter. I left gaps between the text for my artists to draw directly onto the page. I took the pages to a Xerox machine I used at work when no one was around. Then we collated the pages, just sandwiched them together and stapled them.

With the second issue, I found a printer who could do a cover on colored paper. We would do the artwork for the cover and back cover and they would print it on blue or pink paper or whatever color we wanted then we would wrap the cover around that sandwich of pages so it looked more like a regular magazine.

We published twelve issues that way with later issues using slick paper for the covers.  A few years later, when computers and desktop publishing made production so much easier, the internet was also available. That gave us the incentive to restarted Fungi. By that time, I would just take the pages right to a print shop and they would print it, fold it, and staple it so that it looked like a regular, professional magazine.

In the early days, we sold about 20 or 25 copies of each issue. I put a little ad in the back of a magazine called Twilight Zone offering the magazine for free. We had several people respond to that including Henry Vester, who became one of my best friends. He lived out in California. We – the Fungi staff including myself, Ron Zimmerman, and Greg Montejo- went out to see him three or four times. Most of the time we drove cross country. We would fly to Texas or North Dakota and then we would drive the rest of the way to California and later Oregon. We had great trips together. We called ourselves the Dharma Bums!

Interviewer: What was the first thing you had published by somebody else?

Pierre Comtois: A short story for a small press magazine called Haunts way back in 1985. But aside from short stories and non-fiction, my first book would be Marvel Comics in the 1960s. The fulfillment of a lifelong dream. That book has been out for ten years now along with its two successors and in that time its sales have never slipped.

Interviewer: Moving away from comic books, how did you get interested in science fiction?

Pierre Comtois: Mostly through television. TV was still fairly new when I was a teenager. In the mid-1960s there wasn’t a lot to watch so a lot of movies from the 1950s were showing up on TV, like “Creature Feature” on Saturday afternoons. Me and my friend would watch shows like that on TV every week so we’d see The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Forbidden Planet and it totally enthralled us. On top of that were shows like The Outer Limits which ran right after Creature Feature. Those shows were fantastic and so influential, for me at least. I recently bought them on DVD and they hold up completely. Me and m friend would watch the movies and then we’d go out in the yard and reenact them as if we were fighting the same monsters.

At about the same time we had gotten into Tom Swift books. We’d go up to the Dracut Library a couple times a week to take out Tom Swift books and read them in the front yard together. The Tom Swift books were only semi-science fiction though, not the real thing. I asked myself, “Where can I get more of this stuff?” That’s when I found the science fiction section of the library. I usually went to the Dracut Library because it was closer to my home than the Lowell one. I think I read their entire science fiction section. After a while, I started spending my own money on books. My friends read it to. We’d trade books back and forth. I remember getting Dune or Stand on Zanzibar from my friend Mike, or Isaac Asimov’s The Green Hills of Earth. That’s how I got into science fiction. Between SF, comics, and movies, my imagination was set afire and I couldn’t get enough of it. Even started writing my own stories.

Interviewer: Are there any science fiction writers who influenced your writing?

Pierre Comtois: Probably Ray Bradbury the most. He had a style of writing that was almost poetic, like fairy tale-ish. It wasn’t like hard science. That influenced how I wrote my short stories for The Way the Future Was and Different Futures. I wrote it in that style. That’s why the subtitle of The Way the Future Was is “a collection of science fiction fables.” They read more like fantasy than straight sci fi. Other SF writers that influenced me were Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, and James Hogan. But I liked straight fantasy too including authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, William Morris, and James Branch Cabell.

Interviewer: How many books have you written?

Pierre Comtois: I have many different interests so whenever something gets my attention, I’ll write that kind of story. I’ve written several science fiction novels and short stories, also a horror novel and short stories. I loved H. P. Lovecraft when I was a teenager so I wrote stories based on his “mythos” as they call it. I like fantasy but only dabbled in it until recently when an editor asked me to write something about Elak of Atlantis, a character invented by Henry Kuttner in the 1940s which was in the public domain. This editor asked me to write an Elak story for an anthology of fantasy stories he was preparing. The book was called Flashing Swords for which I’ve written a second Elak story for the next volume.

I was a big fan of the TV series, Ann of Green Gables back in the 1990s. Then I read the books and I loved the whole series. I thought, “I wish I could write a young adult novel like this!” So I thought, “Why not?” and ended up with Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls. For that, I took the admonition commonly given to writers to “write about what you know” so I took episodes from my life growing up in Lowell and weaved them into this novel.

I’ve also written a lot of nonfiction. I wrote history articles for magazines like Military History, America’s Civil War, and Wild West. I wrote a lot of articles for those kinds of newsstand magazines. Then I collected them all in Real Heroes, Real Battles and Hazardous History. For a long time I wanted to write capsule biographies of the Founding Fathers. That ended up being Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor. That was a self-published book. No publisher wanted it because they said with Wikipedia, who wants these capsule biographies in book form?

Interviewer: You’ve written a Young Adult novel, Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls. Can you tell us about the plot?

Pierre Comtois: It’s like the back of the book says, “Oil and water, they say, can’t mix but fate, it seemed, had other plans” for characters Guy LaMond and Noel Archambault. The two characters are at loggerheads through much of the book. They both like reading but they can’t stand what the other is reading. She likes classics and he likes science fiction. They have their clashes and run ins, but eventually they come to the realization that they have more in common than they thought.

Interviewer: From the setting of the book, what places would people in Lowell today find familiar?

Pierre Comtois: Most of the action takes place in Centralville where I grew up and many of the characters are based on people I knew. The street names and the place names are all the same though. Most of the action takes place on Desroisers Street but it does move to St. Louis School and some downtown locations like the Strand and Harvey’s Book Land, that’s all in there. And it’s illustrated. I went around town with my niece and she took pictures of the places I write about in the book and they appear in the chapter headings. It’s very much about Lowell. I think anyone who grew up in Lowell in the 1960s would find a lot to relate to in this book.

Interviewer: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write in the morning? In the evening? On a legal pad or the computer? That sort of thing.

Pierre Comtois: In the early days, I would write everything long hand. I had these big pads of blank paper. I’d write on them. I still have many of those early manuscripts and I look at them now to remind myself of how difficult it was before we had computers! Once the computer came in, it saved a lot of time.

The toughest thing is to find the time and then have the discipline to sit down and write. I play psychological games with myself in order to talk myself into getting to work. I used to come home from work, eat supper, and then write for two full hours. That’s how I’d get things done. Other times I had jobs that had plenty of free time at work so I’d write my articles there long hand and then come home and type them up.  Generally speaking, I try to write for a couple of hours each afternoon and then for an hour or two after supper.

Interviewer: What advice do you have for someone who is interested in writing?

Pierre Comtois: The line I quoted from Ann of Green Gables: Write about what you know. That’s good advice. Like in my new book which is a prequel to Sometimes a Warm Rain Falls. There, a character says to Guy, “Why don’t you write something you know about?” She tells him to be like Earl Hamner who wrote about Walton’s Mountain. That was based on his experiences growing up in Virginia. Start with what you know. Don’t think “novel” right off that bat. That’s really off-putting to a beginner because of the size of the project. Start with a short story. Even if there’s no market for it, it’s good to get the brain moving and the internal gears moving. And be careful of your grammar. Make sure your grammar is right.

Interviewer: That covers my questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Pierre Comtois: People can check out my website, www.pierrevcomtois.com. That’s where all my books are listed and there’s an “about the author” section. Did we cover all my books? That’s something we could talk about. When I started, I had short stories published in amateur magazines that would publish fiction. Then I grew into newsstand magazines that would publish history articles. From there, I wrote some screenplays for TV shows. They got as far as an agent but the TV shows didn’t pick them up. I wrote them for Star Trek. Earliest of all was my magazine, Fungi. That gave me a lot of practice. Issue #23, that came out last year, is still available by the way.

Eventually, I felt I was ready to try writing a novel. Working in such a long form was very intimidating to me. I wondered how I could stretch a story out to 200 pages!  My first attempt at that was A Well Ordered Universe which is a science fiction novel. It’s like a philosophical treatise. People on earth discover this anomaly in space. They don’t know if it’s a physical phenomenon or God continuing his Creation. So a ship goes out to meet it. The ship is staffed by regular crew members but they also have some priests and others aboard so there’s the opportunity to have them hold philosophical discussions with each other along the way. I found a regular publisher for that, it wasn’t self-published.

Next I did a collection of all of my horror stories. It was called Autumnal Tales. That was self-published. Hazardous History was a collection of all the articles I wrote for history magazines. That came with a trigger warning on the cover that it was real history and didn’t pull any punches. None of this revisionist stuff! Then there was Tales of the Outré, another collection of horror stories and Different Futures which was more science fiction. I stuck with science fiction and wrote Scheduled For Extinction a novel about people living in a dome in the future. It involves the final plan of eco-extremists that involved the extinction of the human race so the earth could redevelop on its own without human contamination. That was a fun book to write. That led to another science fiction book called Extra Galaxia which came from a novelette I wrote called Collision Course. That became the first of a series of novels with the same characters called “science agents.” In this case, one of these agents is sent to find some missing scientists and encounters a scientific paradox. When I got done, I thought, “that was a blast to write!” That was accepted by a regular publisher that also accepted the sequel: Novis Intelligence. It has the same characters as the first book except the two main characters are now married.

Another one of my favorites is Strange Company which I self-published. It’s features Thomas Jefferson as a detective. It begins in the halls of Congress where a British citizen has been murdered. It’s sure to cause an international incident because the British Parliament was right then considering the peace treaty with the United States. If Parliament learned about this murder it might blow up the whole deal. So Thomas Jefferson, on the sly, has to solve this murder. Along the way he teams up with Alexander Hamilton. Although they’re natural enemies they have to cooperate to solve the case. That was also a lot of fun to write as it combined several interests of mine: mysteries, history, and Jefferson and Hamilton. One of its big fans is fellow writer David Daniel whom I’m sure you know. I like to say that he used to be Lowell’s most successful living writer but he moved to Westford so the crown passed to me!

Mind if I give a shout out to Dave? How we firsts met is an interesting story. When I first began publishing Fungi, maybe the second issue, he wrote me a letter and suggested we get together some time. I looked at the postmark and it was stamped from Lowell! I had no idea there was any other writer within a hundred miles of me! So we got together and have been friends ever since. That was back in 1988 when his first novel, Ark, had been released in paperback. Dave helped me with my writing career, as he has for many other fledgling writers in the area. He read my early stuff and gave me encouragement as well as his own story contributions to every issue of Fungi through the decades.

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